Call centre: the sky is the limit | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 25, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 25, 2011

Business Life

Call centre: the sky is the limit

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Employees are at work in a call centre in Dhaka recently. The country is set to earn billions of dollars in foreign currency from the sector. Photo: Amran Hossain

The year 2007 opened a new door for Bangladesh, offering newer opportunities to earn foreign currency by employing young graduates at home.
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) introduced its call centre policy for the local investors. The regulator claimed it had found, in terms of salary and career success, the sky was the limit for IT professionals.
The BTRC took on a policy that would enable the country to earn billions of dollars from abroad. A number of entrepreneurs enthused over the issue and around 270 licences were given to the firms.
But the tricks of the trade were not known to many and less than a fourth of the licensees are in the market at present.
Securing one percent of the $600 billion market does not seem impossible for Bangladesh to achieve, insiders say. Avenues are still open -- it just needs some initiatives and help from the government as well as the actors in the field. Bangladesh hopes to be the best offshore call centre across the globe.
Why Bangladesh?
In September 2010, British technology magazine Outsource reported on the opportunities of Bangladesh, saying, “The advantages of Bangladesh's grabbing some of the global sourcing pie are obvious. In particular, the authorities have seen the call centre space as providing an excellent entry-point for Bangladesh into the global market, capitalising upon the country's historic cultural and linguistic connections with the English-speaking world.”
“However, the government is aware that a good deal of education and incentivisation is required to bring the country into the headlights of organisations looking for a suitable low-cost outsourcing destination -- education not just amongst Bangladeshis looking for work, but among organisations with work to place.”
The foremost claim of Bangladesh to qualify as the best place for offshore calls is low wages. Bangladesh has certainly more than 25 percent cost advantage over India. Moreover, Indian call centre operators will soon cease to enjoy its 15-year tax break.
The Philippines has already overtaken India in this sector. So Bangladesh too has a chance to chew its piece of the pie. The readymade garments sector in Bangladesh is taking advantage of low wages and booming day by day.
The same conditions apply to call centres. The universities, colleges and vocational institutions in Bangladesh are producing a large pool of English proficient graduates in all disciplines. A huge number of creative graduates are waiting for a job in the market, which makes the sector lucrative.
Moreover, the English accent of the Bangladeshi people is highly neutral, which gives Bangladesh more advantages compared to other nations in the region. Geo-strategically, the Bangladesh time, (+) 6 GMT, ensures a 'follow the sun' services for its global clients.
The business situation
Currently, it is not impressive at all. Some 60 institutions are working with more or less 5,000 agents. Compared to India or the Philippines, it may be even less than half of a large company's accommodation.
As the licensing fee is only Tk 5,000, many enthusiasts had initially thought it was like setting up a 'phone-fax' shop in the alley. As per licence conditions, the BTRC cancelled most of the licences when nothing moved with the licensees through the first six months after the permits were issued.
Looking about and winning a contract from the western world is not an easy task, many found out. The competition is not at home, it is with the experienced world, the entrepreneurs realised. The international standards of services coupled with huge investments made the business tough for most. More or less 10 of the Bangladeshi entities are in profit till now.
Both in the domestic and international services, Bangladeshi call centres are obtaining work orders in voice services or the customer care type contracts. Voice services comprise even less than 10 percent in the business arena, while the main opportunities lie with back office, software development, virtual assistance, transcription or even financial assistance. So Bangladesh has not yet seen any of the more sophisticated work.
Barriers
A comprehensive roadmap is urgently needed to get the call centres flourished. A target should be fixed as to what Bangladesh would like to see in the next five to ten years. The sector has not been declared to date as an industry, which deprives investors of bank loans, while the return from the business is still slow.
According to call centre guidelines, domestic and international call centre service providers cannot operate from the same premises and systems. So an investment of taka one crore is useless either by day or night as it cannot operate around the clock. Basically, domestic services are performed during the day and the international ones by night.
The country also has no backup in international fibre optic cables. Customers in the western world turn their faces away when they hear that Bangladesh has no backup connectivity. Some time ago, a company tried to obtain work by installing a V-sat, which was to be connected via satellite. But it proved too expensive for the amount of business to be achieved.
It is applaudable that the government took the initiative to be connected with five more cables. But at least one is needed immediately -- either submarine or terrestrial -- for the ICT industry, as well as the call centre providers, stakeholders say.
The western companies look for experienced call centres but the local industry is still at a nascent stage. It is only a three-year-old industry, still faltering in its steps.
Although the domestic call centre service providers are doing well, it is up to the country's big financial institutions to now let the call centres provide them with back office problem solutions. Such experiences would be useful for the call centres when they try to secure international contracts.
An insufficient supply of English spoken employees, i.e. students, is a problem for this sector. The educational institutions should take proper steps to groom their students in spoken English, like in India or the Philippines. Call centre operators should train and groom the new employees for up to six months.
Women workers are valued as assets in the call centres. But society is yet to permit girls to work at night or return home late at night due to social taboos and security concerns. Mass awareness campaigns are a must to address this.
Also, marketing in the global arena needs to be addressed. Frequent international exposures are needed to let people know about the country's presence in the market. Taking part in global expositions to attract new customers is also a must.

abdullah.mamun@thedailystar.net

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