Tuesday, 02 November 2004 02:00

SA holds its own in global call centre industry

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The South African call centre industry has doubled in the past two years, with major international firms outsourcing business here.

By Charles Jonker

The South African call centre industry has doubled in the past two years, with major international firms outsourcing business here.

In Gauteng, which already controls 60 percent of the industry, call centre operations are expected to grow by 40 percent in the next six months and to have doubled within three years.

India has 50 percent of all global offshore agent positions, but is facing stiff competition from South Africa, the Philippines, eastern Europe and Mexico. However, India sees significant staff turnover with some operators reporting 300 percent annual staff turnover.

In South Africa, by contrast, absenteeism and attrition are exceptionally low. At Call Centre Nucleus in Sandton, operations manager Tanya Smith reports that, in the past year, attrition has run at 4.55 percent, with absenteeism below 5 percent even though some of their centres run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Silicon.com, a UK-based website, noted recently: "The UK call centre industry is still showing strong growth despite the threat from offshoring, but problems still remain with high staff turnover rates. One in four staff left last year on average, with the average length of stay being two years."

South African staff are showing stronger job commitment despite significant call volumes.

The new SA Tourism call centre, which began operating in September, is logging 5 000 calls a month, handled by 14 staff who speak English, Mandarin, Portuguese, German, Italian, French and Dutch.

The call centre industry is becoming an important source of foreign investment and job creation in South Africa. At Dimension Data's large contact centre operation in Sandton, 850 people work on one major US account alone.

At the high energy Standard Bank call centre run by Dimension Data in central Johannesburg, 49 agents have made 175 000 calls in little more than five weeks to check on whether bank clients are complying with new financial services regulations.

The agents have made 53 000 updates to the bank's database. That centre will run until December 2005 and makes an average of 9 600 calls a day. It is also one of the most cost-efficient contact centres in South Africa, given the low rentals and hi-tech secure accommodation found in central Johannesburg.

The Standard Bank contact centre is run by Daryl Shapiro who has 15 years call centre experience in the US and South Africa. He says that most companies go offshore to spread risk.

"At Dimension Data, we haven't taken away any American jobs. During the recent hurricane season in Florida, as an example, the billing and management hub of a major US client went down for close to a week, all those calls were transferred to us, we worked overtime and helped them avoid what could have been a calamity."

At Absa's Johannesburg call centre, 20 agents handle around 12 000 calls a month, or 525 calls per weekday for a US client, TransUnion. Although absenteeism is a low 7 percent, attrition is about 65 percent, mainly because US "awake" hours fall during the South African night 

Absa's Ronnie Tonkin observes: "Not everyone wants to come to work and leave at 3am. Anyone who can withstand these hours for long has pretty good stamina."

Tonkin says South Africa is becoming a preferred call centre destination because "ours is a service-orientated culture. South Africans will go out of their way to help. In India, 'agents' are very often little more than data-capture clerks."

Recent research by Deloitte UK estimates that in 2003, there were 80 000 full-time equivalent contact centre-seat positions in South Africa of which 10 percent to 15 percent represented offshore work, but represent 55 percent of revenue.

The most commonly offered foreign languages by South African contact centres include German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin and Hebrew.

South Africa's pluses include a strong English-speaking population with a clear accent, a sound skills base, good standards of education, sophistication, a strongly motivated service culture, cutting-edge technology and geopolitical stability.

Dutch companies are interested in our contact centres because of the similarity between Dutch and Afrikaans. With brief training, Afrikaans acquires a distinct Dutch accent.

Outsourcing to call centres is popular because of a high rate of first-call resolution. Smith notes: "We have a major internet service provider (ISP) client and have an 85 percent resolution rate on the first call. If the person who takes the call cannot resolve a technical query, he passes it on to a more skilled person. If no solution can be found, they may go to see the client. With the top 500 clients of that ISP, we monitor their networks and may pick up a computer glitch before they do, we will then alert them and find a way to resolve it."

Gauteng call centres are among the most technologically advanced in the world. Further deregulation is helping. In September, the government announced that South Africa's value-added network providers will now carry voice and data through leased lines.

By February, prices will be lower. The Deloitte study shows that in 2003, there was a 39 percent increase in the number of European financial institutions with offshore operations, and an estimated 500 percent increase in offshore jobs. By 2010, more than 20 percent of the industry's global cost base is expected to have shifted offshore (from Europe or north America).

Agents' starting salaries are on average a third less in South Africa than in the UK, but within competitive local rates.

An article in Newsweek (October 18) notes that "experts say [outsourcing has] actually helped save western European companies by improving their global competitiveness".

From the time of the industrial revolution, exploration, new machines and innovation have seen markets spread and grow - and that change has encouraged dramatic advances for the benefit of all.

Charles Jonker is the chief executive of the Gauteng Economic Development Agency

Publisher: Business Report
Source: Business Report


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