PROLIFERATING CALL CENTERS

FOZIA AROOJ (Fozia.arooj@hotmail.com)
Aug 04 - 10, 2008

Pakistan's nascent call centre industry is changing rapidly. This sector is largely efficiency focused and barely effectiveness driven. Like every sphere of life here also customers demand quick, efficient service whether they request a call-back, send an email, or dial to a customer helpline. Resultantly, there's hardly an industry that does not require a call centre. Call centres offer great business opportunity. Like the internet they have created a level playing field between small and large organizations. By providing effective and efficient service through a call center, new entrants can match and even beat large incumbents. For example, Air Blue started booking customers from cities where it had no booking offices thanks to its call centre. Similarly, in industries where barriers to exit are low such as mobile phone users, a well executed sales campaign could lead to strife like situation from competitors and consistent service quality could reduce fuss.

ISSUES:

Like many other industries IT infrastructure is also facing a many problems. Internet bandwidth, phone and electricity are the three major components of the call centre infrastructure. Non-stop supply of electricity can be ensured with the help of standby generators, but telephone and internet connectivity is beyond the control of call centers. This harsh reality came to haunt the sector during previous years. At one point a fault in the country's only undersea cable caused a shutdown of the entire internet system for a couple of days. The subsequent slowdown lasted a little over two weeks. Telecommunications companies, Internet Service Providers, call centers and several other types of organizations faced serious difficulties due to the fault. Call centers were affected particularly badly. A number of them simply had to close down. Some call centers had to lay off employees owing to a cut in business.

Some inherent problems in the call centers also become deterrent to their growth and improvement. For Instance amongst all call centers there is a general emphasis on increasing service levels (SL) but hardly any focus on challenging part of improving customer satisfaction indicators such as first call resolution (FCR) and customer loyalty parameters. This happens in almost all call centre moots. This superficial approach turns up as a consequence of quantitative measures such as service levels (percentage of calls answered within a certain time limit) and abandon ratio (percentage of calls dropped while waiting for an agent) are automatically calculated and reports generated by call center software. These parameters can comfortably be further augmented by adding more agents. However there are certain difficult to design and implement measures which can be a true barometer to gauge the effectiveness of a call centre. These include designing after call work (ACW) parameters to capture FCR. In addition, an analysis of incoming calls over a time period can indicate repeat callers, an imperfect but useful proxy for FCR. Another mechanism is to call customers soon after their query to assess their satisfaction level. Measuring these indicators over time indicates the trend in meeting the customer's expectations.

Apart from a few large ones, most call centres in the country rely on DSL connections provided by the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL). The country requires a 700MB per second bandwidth and the PTCL's provision of 136MB backup through satellites has proved to be utterly insufficient. Fault in the only link between Pakistan and the rest of the world can result in the shutdown of all voice circuits and a majority of those meant for data connectivity.

The large investments in brand building and positioning are negated by unsatisfactory call centre experience. Customers climb the ladder of loyalty one step at a time from trial user to regular user to satisfied customer to an advocate for the brand who is willing to recommend (or what Tom Peters calls raving fans). At each step the product/service experience and contact with company staff (such as contact center) provides the magnetic force in both directions.

According to industry analysts, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector has not matured enough in Pakistan even though potential for rapid growth has been identified repeatedly. Nevertheless, the sector did witness a boom in the outsourcing of voice-based call centre work in the last five years. This resulted in the establishment of over 100 international and many local call centres, employing more than 3,000 agents in the country.

In addition to these call centers, there are several call centers registered with the Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) which remain to be made fully operational. A majority of these call centres have operations in cities like Karachi , Lahore and Islamabad , according to the PSEB.

Call centers in Pakistan are growing in number and size at a phenomenal rate. On the domestic scene, customer-centric organizations like banks, telecom and utility service providers have invested in call centres to provide prompt customer service and support. The existing call centres are increasing their size and capacities by placing expansion orders. In the international call centre services sector, people will have more jobs with more business coming in, which will improve Pakistan's image in the open market.

There have been instances in Pakistan where people came up with small investments but later on closed down their operations, bringing a bad name to the country. Presently, the industry has too many players offering call centre services and solutions, but very few of them have the required understanding of the business. Only a few provide quality work and are making enough profits after expense. And there are hardly a couple of companies that know where exactly they would stand in the next five years. The industry is exhibiting a mushroom trend, because many new players are coming up as call centre providers. Adequate funding and serious interest is required to improve the industry standards. Investors should multiply their budgets by 5-6% for a standard industry presence.

CONCLUSION:

Pakistan has all the prerequisites for a speedy development of the call centre industry. The investors' perception of Pakistan is perhaps the only major impediment. This problem can be resolved with the careful use of advertising and other promotional activities. The authorities also need to take appropriate measures like providing better infrastructure and improved business environment. The establishment of a reliable IT infrastructure, coupled with an incentive package, is likely to be instrumental in the development of a strong sector, however. A majority of the incentives that the government is providing to the call centre industry comes through the PTCL and PSEB. Authorities ought to extend the incentive package for prospective subscribers comprising of reduced connectivity charges from $9,900 to $6,500 per Ei, Maximum reliability through free satellite backup; Satellite capacity reinforcement of the Pakistan Internet Exchange to ensure bandwidth availability in case of SMW3 breakdown; 20% reduction in local line charges; Service Level Agreement with the internet and IT companies; Self-healing domestic backbone, and; Software Technology Parks connected through Optical Fibre rings. The government bodies must take initiative to support the investors. Approvals, issuance of licenses and other issues must be formalized and simplified to facilitate the industry as well as the investors. PTCL should also come up with relief for international operators to enable a global reach.