THE PHILIPPINES AS A DESTINATION FOR  BRITISH CALL CENTERS

MANILA, January 17, 2005 (STAR) EVERYONE KNOWS By Robert O’Malley, ASIAN CALL CENTRES  -  Over the past few years, the Philippines has replaced India as the destination of choice for many offshore call centers servicing the American market – and with good reason. The Philippines still has the highest level of English proficiency than any country in Asia, and Filipinos have by far the easiest-to-understand accent for most people whose first language is English. Despite this, most British companies have still tended to choose India ahead of the Philippines.

Many Philippine-based call center companies are now increasingly focused on the opportunities from the United Kingdom. This is especially true given that the pound has strengthened to around 1.9 from 1.4 against the dollar, making British-based work more than a third more lucrative. There is now a small but expanding number of British companies outsourcing their operations to the Philippines. With growing discontent about Indian call centers among the British people, could this be the start of a new trend for British-based companies?

Our latest client at Asian Call Centres is a telecommunications company from the UK called Fizz Telecom. It is aggressively acquiring new customers in the UK by using call centers here in Manila. Steve Clucas, the sales director of Fizz, is delighted with the results so far. "We have developed a quality product but needed a quality workforce to take the product to market," says Clucas. "Through Asian Call Centres, the Philippines has been able to provide that quality workforce and (we) plan to increase that workforce to more than 500 this year."

The main problem for the Philippines is that Britons know very little about the country. As with many Brits, when I first came to the Philippines, I knew very little about it. As Brits, we have significant relationships with many countries such as those who are also part of the European Union, NATO, the British Commonwealth, the permanent UN Security Council and G8, plus our major trading partners and countries where our troops are based. These countries dominate history lessons in our schools, the news from our television networks and debates in our pubs. With these so many countries, it is no surprise that the Philippines, which is not among them, doesn’t attract as much attention from the Brits as it deserves. Hopefully, the success of Fizz would show to even more British companies what the Philippines can deliver.

Why the Philippines?

According to every Asian call center review since 2001, the Philippines has proven to be the number one country in Asia to provide offshore English-speaking call center solutions. It has outpaced India in key areas such as English, standard of agents, telecommunications and quality of local management. This applies equally to call center activity from both sides of the Atlantic.

Culturally closer?

Anyone who thinks that India has stronger cultural ties to Britain than the Philippines based on our historical ties doesn’t truly understand our history. With the exception of a small part of British colonial history, the Empire was exclusively about trade as opposed to spreading cultural influence.

Obviously, there are some cultural similarities between India and the UK. For example, Indian food is among the most popular cuisines among Brits. Also, with so many people of Indian descent living throughout the UK, Indian contribution to the UK is vast. However, this is mainly one-way traffic with India and the Indian people influencing the UK with very little cultural influence going the other way.

Although there are conflicting theories on what defines culture and therefore, which countries are culturally close, the theory I subscribe to is the America-North Korea theory where the United States is the most "Western" country and North Korea is the most "Eastern" country. Countries in Western Europe are close to America, while the other so-called "hermit societies" or "closed societies" are closer to North Korea and then there are a whole host of other countries in the middle. Asia represents a broad spectrum of cultures from Eastern to Western but in the entire continent, the Philippines is considered by many to be the most "Westernized" country in many aspects of culture. While there are differences with British culture, they are generally easy to overcome.

However, aspects of culture such as food and dress are generally irrelevant when deciding on call center location. The important aspect is "communication culture" and this also varies from East to West. The successful salesperson in an Eastern country can be often be too aggressive based on the standards of the "West," whereas the Western salesperson would be far more subtle and would generally spend greater attention to listen and understand the needs of a prospect. When call centers in these "Eastern countries" provide culture training before dialing the UK, they spend a lot of time talking about geography and history and too little time on how to adapt the way they communicate. However, it is always an uphill battle since they could have communicated that way their whole life and would undoubtedly communicate that way when they go home after their training.

As with other cultural aspects, the typical Filipino will communicate in a similar way with Americans, making it easier for them to understand and to be understood. Whether we admit it or not, the Britons are culturally close to America in almost every aspect of our lives, including the way we communicate. We are, therefore, also culturally close to the Philippines. It is this cultural closeness which makes the Philippines a very good base for call centers serving the British market. This is not to say that we have not encountered issues with Filipinos serving the UK market relating to communications and getting the Filipino agents to understand the variety of British accents, the speed of our speech and our huge range of slang. However, the typical Filipino agent has the ability and enthusiasm to learn and adapt, making this easy to overcome with time and effort. Asian Call Centres had to develop a specific curriculum to deal with these issues and like so much of our e-learning and classroom-based training, has proven to be very effective.

American accent

To a British ear, a Filipino sounds very close to American. At first, this may appear to be negative but if used correctly, its effect can be very positive. Whenever a gatekeeper hears an American accent, he rarely thinks it’s a telemarketing call. It is unlikely that many of the expatriate American community in the UK would work as telemarketers so when a gatekeeper hears an American accent, it sounds as though the call has increased importance. This is one of a number of reasons why companies using Filipino telemarketers have shown increased performance compared with other offshore locations.

Other competitors

Of course, the competition no longer just comes from India. There is a large number of developing countries jumping on the outsourcing bandwagon. However, in many of these countries, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, English is a weak third language and they are often lacking in quality communication skills. In fact, the real competition will actually come from Africa, most notably South Africa.

Conclusion

For as long as the Philippines retains its competitive advantage in English, the country is definitely a strong contender where British companies can locate their call centers. Since 2000, the peso has devalued from approximately 70 to over 100 to the pound, making it even more competitive. Like any offshore locations, there are challenges but the success which Fizz has achieved will soon be achieved by other British companies.

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Robert O’Malley is the COO of Asian Call Centres, a subsidiary of Active Business Solutions Inc. and a member of Yapster e-Conglomerate Inc. You may contact him at rob.omalley@asiancallcentres.com.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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