Aug 04 - 10, 2008

It is often said that over the years India has emerged as one of the leading exporters of software. Out of this a substantial share is contributed by the call centres, despite that fact that Indian attendants suffer from one serious handicap, ethnic accent. However, Indian players have been trying real hard to overcome this weakness by undertaking extensive and intensive training of these attendants. It goes without saying that they could have not attained the current status without the help of the Indian government.

According to the sector experts, "It is true that Indian government offer many incentives but its largest contribution is facilitating the entrepreneurs in optimizing the cost to enable the players to beat the international competition. As against this the software developers and operators of call centres in Pakistan have the contrary experience. Though, Pakistani government claims to provide many incentives, the industry continue to suffer from a number of irritants, which eventually become insurmountable.

Guaranteeing uninterrupted supply of electricity at affordable cost to all the consumers is the responsibility of the government but contrary is evident in Pakistan. Uninterrupted and free of surges electricity supply is the lifeline of technology companies but it is not ensured by the government. The entrepreneurs have to install UPSs and standby generators to maintain the lifeline. This adds to the cost of doing business.

According to the chief operating officer of a call centre employing around 200 people the daily diesel expense, for running standby generators, is around Rs 10,000, which erodes profitability. On top of this are the charges paid to telephone companies and adding to the miseries is highly undependable network of PTCL is certain areas.

Another key issue is low literacy level and lack of English language proficiency of the people seeking job. The incumbents may have command on written English but often speaking skill is missing. Therefore, often the employers have to impart in-house training before assigning the responsibilities.

The enterprises seeking business from the international companies for the local development of software face other problems, the worst being the highly distorted perception about Pakistan. Removing this negative perception is the sole responsibility of the government, which often does not have time to address this sensitive key issue. Whatever Pakistan receives against export of software and services is the result of a few individuals and not the outcome of institutions responsible for promoting exports in general and export of software in particular.

Institutional support is missing on both the fronts, often participation of local software developers cannot be ensured because of the selection criteria and one a few get the benefit. Similarly, inviting representatives of the foreign companies to Pakistan is not easy. Since 9/11 most of the foreigners, particularly the Americans and the Europeans are hesitant in visiting Pakistan.

However, a local critic does not accept this rationalization and says, "It is simply the question of the question of priority of the foreign investor. If they want to invest they take the decision despite conditions being hostile but if they do not want to invest all sort of explanations are given, some times completely irrational. Foreign investors have their own agenda and timing to pursue. It may be a little irrelevant example but a fact that after Pakistan conducted atomic test good number of foreign banks decided to close down their Pakistan operations. Lately, Standard Chartered Bank and ABN Amro Bank enhanced their exposure in Pakistan and the latest entrant is Barclays Bank. Therefore, it is not correct to say that decisions of foreign investors are also based on economic rationales."

According to another critic, "Usually no investment is required in the outsourcing business. Usually the foreign party uses the facility, including the human resource and also guarantee buyback of the finished product. In case of software development, the foreign buyer divides the 'program' in small modules and let the various contractors do their parts. The final 'integration' is done at the main facility. Therefore, there could be any other reason for not awarding the contract to Pakistani companies but certainly not the poor law and order situation or high cost of doing business".

Having said this it is also necessary to say that Pakistani companies should also revisit their business model to attract the overseas customers. Historically, two types of companies are operating in Pakistan. First, focusing foreign clients but also having deep roots in Pakistan and second, catering overseas clients without having any local base. Both the models have their advantages and disadvantages. However, it is believed that companies having roots in Pakistan have edge over the other type of companies.

In Pakistan, as operators of call centres, two companies have earned good reputation. TRG has a good number of US based clients and ZRG is one of leading companies catering the need of local clients. However, it seems a little strange that companies servicing the overseas clients normally do not like to share their business strategy or client list with the media. Such companies also do not place advertisement in the local media because they believe that interaction with the local media could not yield any benefit.

Analysts also believe that developing a local profile is also necessary because any customer would like to know the types of clients being catered before hiring the services of any business entity. All the companies irrespective of being old or new in the trade must have attractive, interactive and each to explore websites.

The government should also play its role of promoting the sector rather than entities owned by family and friends. A lot of money has been wasted in the past but no credible results could be achieved.