A view of Northern Ireland.
As the European Union continues to expand and become a larger economic entity with a growing population, the worldwide marketplace has recognized the EU's increasing importance. The worldwide call center industry, too, has been actively moving to accommodate the expanding EU. Call centers in Southeast Asia continue to grow, but it's important to remember that although English is prevalent in countries such as India and the Philippines, mainland European languages are not (with the exception of Spanish in the Philippines). As the European Union continues to expand geographically and economically, the traditional cost-saving contact center locations will likely become insufficient for its needs.
In the late winter of this year, I had the privilege of visiting greater Belfast on a snowy day (a rare occurrence, I'm told) for the purpose of gaining information about the vast number of outsourcing opportunities available there.
When touring Belfast, one can't help thinking of the word "reconstruction." Building in this city's business district is significantly occuring. Because of more moderate operations and labor costs, compared to the Republic of Ireland or the rest of the UK, Belfast and its environs have been garnering a lot of interest as of late. Now quite politically stable, the region is receptive to foreign direct investment (FDI); to date, investment by multinationals has increased 45 percent over the past six years.
My visit was coordinated by Invest Northern Ireland (INI), which is Northern Ireland's main economic development organization, established to promote growth and enterprise in that region. Currently, Northern Ireland seems to be positioning itself to attract and retain "knowledge-based" industries. The labor pool is well educated and multilingual, and Northern Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Europe. Are you weary of high turnover rates in the call center? The region boasts one of the lowest labor turnover rates in Europe. As a bonus, informal studies over the years have suggested that Americans, in particular, are exceptionally positively influenced by the easily understandable Irish accent in spoken English.
Invest Northern Ireland helps companies that wish to locate in the region by offering direct financial assistance, identifying suitable building and property locations, putting companies in touch with the proper services providers, setting up infrastructure and assisting with hiring and training.
Facts About Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's population stands at about 1.7 million people, representing about 2.9 percent of the population of the UK as a whole. The landmass, I was informed, is about the same size as the state of Connecticut. As of spring 2004, the unemployment rate stood at 5.2 percent.
Northern Ireland, with the rest of the UK, is a part of the European Union (EU). As a result, companies locating in the region are able to take advantage of opportunities arising from the deregulation and integration of the many economies in the EU market of 370 million people.
Currently, one of the most commonly voiced concerns about locations such as India, the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia is the unreliability or lack of availability of infrastructure. These concerns may or may not be justified, but there is certainly a feeling of apprehension and some helplessness when core business is relying on connectivity on the other side of the planet, reachable only by 24 hours (or more) of traveling time. Northern Ireland is a brief six-hour flight from New York.
British Telecom Northern Ireland (BT) was kind enough to meet with me and provide information about the available telecom infrastructure offered to companies that locate within or outsource services to Northern Ireland. BT provides a wide range of services in the area, including fixed, mobile, local, national and international telephone services, plus Internet and Web-based multimedia services, Intranet and information systems integration for business customers.
A deep pool of Class A office space is available, and rents on prime floor space are exceptionally low compared to the rest of western Europe.
HCL BPO Belfast: India Outsourcing To Northern Ireland
HCL Technologies is a $390 million New Delhi, India-based IT services corporation. In an interesting twist of circumstances, the Indian parent company has actually located its customer care operations in Northern Ireland. In 2001, HCL Technologies acquired 90 percent share-holding in a modern BT call center located immediately outside Belfast. This 90/10 joint venture launched HCL BPO Belfast, which states that it is now the largest outsourcing operation in all of Ireland. The center currently employs more than 900 agents and services new contracts from British, North American and European companies.
The day of my visit, I spoke with Kevin Houston, vice president and contact center director of the company's Apollo Contact Centre in Belfast. Mr. Houston said, "Since HCL BPO was originally established in September 2001, the company has grown from a standing start to employ 3,000 people around the world. We have a network of five service delivery centers in India and offshore operations in Malaysia and here in Belfast."
But what he said that stood out most was "This international expansion is based on HCL's realization that while outsourcing to India can produce cost savings of up to 60 percent, this differential by itself is not sufficient to build a global BPO services company." From my own observations, the companies that balance the cost savings of offshoring but take care to never lose sight that quality of service must remain the most important element are those that ultimately succeed.
HCL BPO's Belfast operation performs both inbound and outbound teleservices in addition to back-office functions, Web-based customer support, collections and technical support services/help desk. The center is multilingual and operates its own state-of-the-art in-house agent training facility called Apollo University.
HCL BPO has an interesting and unique story to tell. For more information, visit www.hclbpo.com.
Another stop I made on my Northern Ireland call centers tour was the offices and call center floors of MM Group, the fourth largest operator of outsourced contact centers in the UK. (Since my visit, the company has announced that it has sold 92.5 percent of its ordinary equity to SR. Teleperformance. The founders of MM Group will continue to manage the company, retaining a 7.5 percent share-holding.)
MM Group performs both inbound and outbound teleservices, interactive inbound (IVR), tech support, billing and Web-based customer service, in addition to list services, database management, printing, mailing and fulfillment. The company boasts state-of-the-art hardware and software resources and is notably the first company in the UK to use Aspect's Customer Relationship Portal, which allows them to offer high-value Web-based services that include collaborative browsing, text chat, whiteboarding and form sharing.
MM Group has 440 seats, employs about 500 agents and processes in the area of 400,000 calls per month and 1,000 emails per day. Most agents fall into the 18 to 30-year age group. The company has call center locations in Bangor, Northern Ireland; Bristol, Ashby and Avonmouth in England and Cardiff, Wales.
For more information, visit www.mmgroup.co.uk/index.html.
TeleTech UK Ltd.
TeleTech UK Ltd. is a subsidiary of Denver-based TeleTech Holdings, Inc. Its European headquarters are situated in London, and it has satellite offices located in Glasgow, Scotland; Belfast, Northern Ireland and several locations in Spain.
The North Belfast-based customer management center I visited was established in 2001 and currently employs approximately 100 agents in vibrantly employee-friendly call centers. (TeleTech UK, as a whole, employs nearly 800 agents throughout its multiple locations.) The UK-based contact centers offer inbound and outbound programs for clients in the financial services, communications, government, travel and leisure, utilities, transportation and retail industries. TeleTech UK is exceptionally multilingual and offers customer support in up to 15 languages. (I was fortunate enough to be permitted to lurk over the shoulder of one of the German-speaking agents for a few moments.)
For more information, please visit www.teletech.com.
More information about Northern Ireland may be found at www.northernireland.gov.uk. Special thanks go to Invest Northern Ireland (www.investni.com), including my guide Cheryl McKeown, for such valuable assistance.
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BY Tracey Schelmetic, Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions[R]
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