Call center is a central customer service operation where agents, often called customer care specialists or customer service representatives, handle telephone calls in behalf of a client. Clients usually include mail-order catalog houses, telemarketing companies, computer product help desks, banks, financial services, insurance groups, transportation and freight handling firms, hotels and IT companies.

The call center serves as a telemarketing venue where the products and services of a particular company are being promoted to the clients. Through these centers, queries of company clients are being handled by the call center agents. Solutions to problems and customer complaints on certain products and services also find solutions through the call centers.

The size of call center operations is described and classified in terms of the number of "seats". A "seat" consists fo a station with two or three people alternating in several shifts to provide 24-hour call center service.

The Philippines as Call Center Hub

The DTI noted that the country is now fast emerging as the call center capital of the world, offering 24x7 multilingual and multi-media supported premium services for marketing, sales, customer care, crisis management, investor relations and other key business applications.

Analysts agree that a lot of factors contributed to the industry's sizzling development pace. One is the rising cost of doing business in indusrialized countries like the United States. This is forcing foreign companies to downsize adn outsource peripheral e-services to developing countries like the Philippines to cut on overhead costs.

Other factors cited include better power and telecommunications infrastructure, competitive labor costs in terms of quality and value for money, and strong government support for ICT-related industries. Of course, the availability of skilled labor is the country's acknowledged ace. Filipinos are renowned worldwide for English proficiency, high IT literacy, trainability, natural warmth and customer care orientation that are vital in the call center operations. The Filipinos strong affinity to the Western culture and events also proved advantageous.

In a study conducted by research firm Frost and Sullivan, it reveals that last year, the Philippine call center industry spent US$9.8M in terms of hardware and software. The country ranks ninth in the Asian region, following India at US$21M and Singapore at US$20.3M. It is expected that the Philippines would be spending more in the next few years.

Industry Prospects

The call center industry has been dubbed as the country's latest sunshine industry. It is expected to generate around 24,000 jobs in teh next two years. Even as the country feels the fallout from the global IT crunch, it has benefited from the prevailing cost-cutting trend in an unprecedented way. This contributes largely in the tremendous boom in the call center business.

From 2000 to 2001, the industry segment reportedly grew by more than 200 percent, and local call center revenues are projected to increase from US$173M to US$864M in 2004.

Optimism runs high as Mc Kinsey and Co., an international research group, forecasts the growth of ICT-enabled services to a US$200B industry by the year 2010 with the call center segment's share placed at a whooping US$42B.

Reports would also show that in the United States alone, there are around 1.5 million call center seats that could be outsourced. Industry data would point that so far the Philippines has less than 10,000 seats filled, indicating the domestic industry's huge potential.

Aside from the US, main target markets for the call center industry also include Australia and the United Kingdom.

Major Industry Movers

Reports cited that there are at least 16 industry players that forms the collective membership of the Call Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP). Among these are Etelecare International Inc., Infnyxx, People Support, C3 Customer Contact Center Inc., Sykes Asia Inc., Contact World, SVI connect, Cquadrant and Immequire Phils. Inc., among others. However, it is expected that industry growth would continue.

New emerging players include Easycall Communications Phils., Inc, that has abandoned the paging business and is investing P1.46B over the next five years in a call center facility. At least 4 foreign firms have bared plans to establish offshore operations in the country this yeart, that are expected to generate 2,000 jobs. Telecom giant PLDT also announced its investment amounting to US$5.5M in a 500-seat joint venture with Parlance Systems Inc. It has also inked two other call center contracts; with Jardine Salmat Corp. and TeleTech Holdings Inc. Still, another telemarketing specialist, Reese Brothers of the US also revealed its plans of investing in a call center project at the Subic Freeport Zone that is expected to generate additional 2,000 jobs.

Qualities of Call Center Agents

Call center companies, being in the customer-oriented business, would be needing special qualifications from a prospective call center agent. Although some preferred college graduates, even non-degree holders could be hired if they possess the following specialized skills:

  • Demonstrable customer care orientation;
  • Good communication and listening skills;
  • Proficient in English, working knowledge fo other language like Mandarin, Korean and German would be an advantage;
  • Must be computer literate particularly in Word processign and use of internet applications.

There exists call center training institutions like the Call Center Academy and Asia Call Center Link that offers short call center courses ranging from 1-2 weeks duration. This is a special training aimed at preparing a prospective call center agent to the rudiments of the job. Through 20-40 hour modules, this training institutions equip both graduates and undergraduates with competitive and globalized customer service skills.

Facing the Challenge

The government is really keen on making the Philippines as the call center hub of Asia in recognition of the the tremendous capacity to provide jobs to our people and earn dollar revenues.

Aside from the granting of fax incentives and heading trade missions, the government is working on building an information highway linking Metro Manila's cyberparks to fast-track the creation of an ICT corridor in the country.

The government has also identified call center services as one of the five IT outsourcing areas for investment promotion and investment access. A school curriculum conforming to the industry' requirements, with more emphasis on English, Math and Science is now being pursued.

As a quality assurance mechanism, TESDA has been working with the Contact Federation Philippines (CPP) in the development of competency standards in the area of call center. Three standards were already developed and are ready for industry validation, to include: Customer Service Representative (Level II), Telesales/Telemarketing Officer (Level III), an Team Leader (Level IV).

The Philippines must really shape up if it wants to maintain its competitive edge as other nations are also moving to grab a share of the lucrative call center market. At present, India leads the race with 100 call centers and 300,000 agents against the country's more than 20 call centers employing less than 10,000 agents. But China is poised to be a major threat as it has begun teaching high school students to speak in English. It has already started to compete in data encoding services, and experts predict that it will be a force to reckon with in the next 2-3 years. Malaysia and Indonesia have started to invest in call center.

Industry leaders caution that while we stand a good chance of grabbing a big market share, we must continue to make the requisite improvements in infrastructure and labor quality to attract more call center investments in the country.