Market analysts have high hopes for the Asian call center market in the next five years. At $655 million in 2002, the customer service industry is expected to rake in $1.5 billion by 2007.
The call center industry will be one of the major segments to contribute to the economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region as more North American and European countries look to Asia for their customer service requirements.
A call center is a customer service operation where agents (now called “customer care specialists”), on behalf of a client, place and receive customer calls or e-mails on issues ranging from complaints to inquiries, and even product promotions. Companies that value customer relationship management—such as those in the financial services and insurance, transportation and freight handling, banking, and IT industries—usually have a need for call centers.
The size of a call center is referred to in terms of “seats” instead of “agents” as phone operators work in three shifts to adjust to the different time zones of the countries where the calls originate.
Cheaper by the Dozen
Asia is still the cheapest place to acquire skilled, knowledgeable, and English-proficient call center agents, where the wages of customer service representatives (CSRs) can be as much as 80 percent lower than those of their American counterparts.
In the Philippines, where the rates range from $6 to $10 per hour per seat, the customer service industry is flourishing. The world’s second-largest English-speaking country has become the ideal destination for outsourced call center operations of multinational companies. In 2002, the Philippine call center industry reached a whopping $10.5 million and is fast catching up with dominant player India, which raked in $12 million.
There are about 30 to 40 call centers in the Philippines, although most major call center outsourcers would rather not publicize that they are outsourcing their requirements to the Philippines. America OnLine in Clark, Pampanga, maintains an offshore facility of 600 “cybergeeks” who answer e-mail inquiries. Citibank call center agents holding office in Eastwood City Cyberpark in Quezon City handle the credit card operations for the bank.
Filipinos Better Call Center Agents
Culture compatibility. English proficiency. Neutral accents. More foreign investors are choosing the Philippines as a base for their offshore customer service facilities because culturally, Filipinos are more Westernized than their Asian neighbors.
The Philippines was an American colony for almost 50 years and Western business practices have rubbed off on Filipinos. The commercial code of the U.S. is no different from Philippine mercantile laws, such as the bill of lading and negotiable instruments. The Philippines and America have similar requirements for certified public accountants as well.
Filipinos watch American TV and are thus more familiar with the nuances of American English. They also have neutral accents, compared with Indians. When clients dial a 1-800 number, they think they are still talking to an American, when in fact it is a Filipino on the other end.
In addition, Filipinos are more customer oriented and more patient in handling calls, aside from being helpful and friendly.
A 1999 regional study conducted by the Australia-based Call Center Research shows that the Philippines invests heavily in keeping the quality of customer service. CRC ranked the Philippines second to Australia.
But while Filipinos are better American English speakers than Indians, this should not make them complacent. In the coming years, the Philippines faces greater competition from Singapore, Hong Kong, and even China. Outsourcers prefer call center facilities that could handle calls from all over the world, not just from English-speaking nations.
Europe, for one, is a big and lucrative market, but Filipinos are not really educated in European languages. If the Philippines intends to keep ahead of the call center outsourcing race, it should place emphasis on language training not only in English, but also Spanish, and even Chinese and Japanese. Proficiency in Chinese and Japanese would ensure that the Philippines retains its connectivity to the Asian market and assure more business from non-English-speaking clients.
Call Center Hub
India markets itself as “cheap but good.” To make business, the Philippines need not sell itself cheap but capitalize on its inherent advantages in the international market. Quality more than quantity should be the cutting edge.
Intent on seeing the Philippines become the call center hub of Asia, the Philippine Board of Investments (BOI) has been giving out perks to the IT sector. An IT firm could get pioneer incentives as long as it would provide new and untried technology, has substantial venture capital, introduces major innovation in software development, locates its office in specified IT zones, and costs at least 100 million pesos.
Outsourcing has become an attractive investment in recent years. Among the services offered in Philippine-based outsourcing companies are copyediting and indexing; web design and maintenance; data conversion, data warehousing, data capture and data entry; OCR and scanning services; proofreading; encoding and keyboarding; imaging services and graphics design; call center and customer service; abstracting and document conversion; typesetting; and tagging, among others.