Call Centers in Central America

In 1994 when I founded one of the first call centers in Latin America, the idea of “outsourcing,” call center services was just beginning to be explored.

That first call center, Acer Information Systems, had 450 seats, and was eventually sold to Sykes, which grew the center to several thousand. Today there are 35 “Official,” Call Centers in Costa Rica, with an estimated 8,000 positions, and 50, with close to 10,000 positions in Panama, according to the Central American Call Center Report. There are also numerous private brand Call Centers, Sports Books and National Call Centers, which are not counted in this number.

The growth has been phenomenal.

In 1994, the Acer Call Center was based on Nortel Technology, VOIP was in its early stages and the Multi-channel Contact Center was a “concept.” Today, innovations by Cisco Systems, Avaya and other major players in the Contact Center market, have driven an industry that continues to innovate as much as grow.

In the last five years, the concept and terminology of “Contact Center,” has all but replaced the traditional call center, where agents sat and passively waited for calls.

Today, the Contact Center is a multi-channel operation, allowing customers to interact via
traditional phone calls, interactive voice response systems, chat, email and fax. The best
of these systems is tightly integrated and gives the customer choice in how to interact with the center.

In 1998 I got a look at the future when I chose the Interactive Intelligence platform for a
Silicon Valley call center operation I was managing at the time. The InIn platform was one
of the first to advocate the concept of Customer “Interactions,” rather than calls.

Interactive Intelligence provided an integrated mailbox concept that allowed agents to
control all customer interactions from the same desktop application. It was a bold innovation and one that led to the type of integration we see today in products from Avaya and Cisco. Once dominant Nortel was too slow in adopting new technologies and integration and lost ground to Avaya and Cisco in integrating true Contact Center applications into their platforms. Today’s Contact Center more resembles the War Room from the Movie “War Games,” than the old cubicle farms of 20 years ago where I got my start.

In those days a Call Center was run by pure sweat, instinct and numbers, constantly playing the game of cost vs. revenue. I remember it well.

I sometimes miss the days of the old fly by the seat of your pants, schedule in Microsoft
Excel and keep track of customers in flat file databases. When I first started in the
Business, as a Team Leader, Supervisor, Manager and eventually Director, at Packard Bell
Electronics, we did not have all the fancy tools and analysis we have today. But we helped
to create many of them. We were one of the first organizations to integrate a Knowledge Base and CRM application. We pioneered the “Rescue Disk,” for personal computers, and we created the first 900 number for software support. We drove and created innovations and were part of the history of Call Center development.

A Call Center Manager “made his bones,” back in those days through instinct and a good mastery of the spreadsheet. Today’s software and hardware solutions allow a modern day contact center to operate practically on autopilot, and to analyze and adjust for maximum performance and cost efficiency.

All of these changes have created an environment and an opportunity for Outsourcing
Operations that we could not have imagined back in the early days of my career.
Voice over IP has also created opportunity. Using Voice over IP and modern networking
technology, tying together contact centers in diverse parts of the world has become almost as simple as basic networking. Today it is not only possible to link sites with full voice capabilities over the network, but transmit other types of data over the same pipes. Fiber Optic technology has created the mythical superhighway where data flows bi-directionally 24x7x365.

In the last five years, I have consulted for numerous existing Contact Centers, and helped to found several, including one in Guatemala. The price of technology continues to go down, while the capabilities continue to evolve. While India still dominates the worldwide
Outsourcing Market, many companies are finding that technology advances, and the near shore locations of Central American Contact Centers, offer an attractive alternative to a nearly saturated Indian Market. In fact, while planning the call center in Guatemala last year, several Indian operations expressed interest in joint ventures. Advances in Contact Center technology, especially in the area of Voice over IP, create opportunities for regional
contact center operations, without the massive investments once required. In fact, many
smaller operations, including satellite, virtual call centers and back office outsourcing
operations require little more than $20,000 worth of networking hardware and some
workstations with IP phones, to get started. Entire operations are run with nothing more
than a few thousand dollars in hardware and a Vonage subscription.

Small, boutique style call centers are not the norm though, and companies like SITEL, Sykes and other big outsourcing players are investing millions in creating mega-centers with all the bells and whistles of a Network Operations Center. Such Centers include training centers, advanced IP based networks, data repositories and advanced Contact Center Technologies. In the next 12 months it is estimated that Guatemala and El Salvador will lead growth in the region that will exceed 38%. El Salvador and Guatemala already have over 7000 Contact Center employees working in 14 Centers.

A more interesting option may be Honduras, where I am currently working on implementing the first World Class Outsourcing Center in the country. The ICT Outsourcing Center will be a multi channel contact center and Network Operating Center combined. The ICT center is a unique opportunity, as it is being built from the ground up to be state of the art.

ICT is owned by the Grupo Karims, and is a part of the Grupo Karims family of companies, one of the most successful enterprises in the region. The Center is unique in that it is being designed from day one as the hub of an outsourcing network, complete with the most advanced Networking and Contact Center solutions, and designed to scale to meet the needs of clients large and small, national and international.

Having worked on a number of projects in recent years where implementation cost was the driving factor, it is great to have an opportunity to, “do it right,” and to provide ICT
clients with a no compromise suite of solutions. ICT also has the kind of regional and
global footprint (through it’s parent company Grupo Karims), to be able to offer clients a
wide range of cost effective data management and contact center solutions.

Costa Rica may have reached a saturation point when it comes to English Speaking employee pool, and it’s telecommunications infrastructure. The drain on English speaking talent has led to widespread poaching of employees from one company to another, and higher per seat cost. As the only country in the region with a telecommunications monopoly, Costa Rica is increasingly at a disadvantage with other countries in the region in providing flexible communications options. Costa Rica in fact recently suffered problems with it’s international data pipeline that caused outages and slowdowns for many of the companies utilizing land based systems.

As a new entry to the Outsourcing provider market, Honduras has much promise to provide excellent service at competitive prices.

The market in Central America will continue to grow. With the Central American Free Trade
Agreement opening markets and providing incentives for near shore operations, and with
technology continuing to evolve, the world is becoming a smaller place. The Utopia Group’s call center consulting business has grown by several hundred percent in the last five years, and we project even more growth as we continue to expand our operations to support new outsourcing projects in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. We believe that the region has much more growth potential over the next few years than even the projected 38% for the next year indicates.

David S. Anderson is president of The Utopia Group, located in San Jose, Costa Rica. He can be reached at david.anderson@grupo-utopia.com

Crossposted to ISOU

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The Business Adventures of an Expat Call Center Guru in Costa Rica