PLDT call center woos European firms

MANILA (01/13/2004) - In the first quarter of 2004, the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) will start operating its third call center facility. But unlike its other customer care sites, this facility will serve customers in yet another continent -- Europe.

PLDT entered the call center business in the second half of 2002. To date, the telecommunication giant operates two call centers: Parlance and Vocativ. Parlance houses 520 seats which correspond to about 750 agents, while Vocativ employs some 1,000 customer service representatives. Both are servicing the customer care and tele-sales requirements of companies based in North America.

To service the customer care requirements of a United Kingdom-based financial firm, the third call center facility located in Parañaque will initially house some 250 seats. The center marks PLDT's entry into Europe's lucrative outsourcing market and will showcase the Filipino CSRs (customer service representatives) prowess in the whole of Europe.

In the global call center outsourcing realm, the Philippines has traditionally been servicing the requirements of U.S.-based clients. The country's affinity to the North American culture, the Filipinos' proficiency in American English and neutral accent, and time zone differential have long been attracting U.S.-based firms to relocate and outsource their call center operations in the country.

However, these inherent advantages may not have the same impact on the European market. Not only are the accent and the idiomatic expressions distinct, Europe's culture is entirely different and may present some challenges to the U.S.-oriented Filipino CSRs.

"We have already looked into that. In fact, we already have the modules and the specialist who will handle the training of the CSRs in our new call center," said Rosalie Montenegro, PLDT senior vice president for its Call Center Business Group.

Apart from the growth that will be ushered in by its newly-tapped market, Montenegro is keen on growing PLDT's call center business by expanding its service offerings. The most logical strategy is to go beyond the call center and pursue opportunities in business process outsourcing (BPO), she said.

"We are very intent on breaking into the BPO market this year. We stand a strong chance because we can readily leverage on our relationship with our existing U.S.-based clients," she disclosed.

"Call center and BPO are closely intertwined. In fact, a call center operation is a BPO in itself. If we can prove to our customers that we can provide efficient customer care services, perhaps we can win their confidence in outsourcing more business processes other than pure voice," Montenegro said.

PLDT is specifically looking at capturing back-office procedures such as application processing, billing investigation and loans processing.

Montenegro believes the Philippines has all the capabilities needed to service BPO requirements. The fact that Filipinos perform well as call center representatives is an affirmation that the country has a ready human resource pool to man BPO operations, she noted. "Voice service is a lot harder than back-end processing (since) you're only given three minutes to interact with the customer live. So you better know what you're saying and say it well," she said.

From a cost perspective, BPO complements call center operations because it optimizes the call center infrastructure, thus providing "more productive seats." "Your operations don't have to match the office hours in the U.S. when you are doing a BPO. But in a call center, matching this time is critical. SO why not use the call center to do a BPO while the call center is asleep to maximize on rentals and utilities?" she suggested.

By outsourcing their call center requirements in the Philippines, U.S. companies save as much as 40 percent in operational costs. With BPO, the cost savings are even higher, Montenegro bared.

Also part of PLDT's 2004 call center strategy is to decentralize its call center operations from Metro Manila to other cities in the regions. Montenegro said the company is looking at the viability of setting up a facility in Baguio City, the university hub of Northern Luzon, Pangasinan, Batangas, and Dumaguete City in the Visayas.

All three PLDT facilities are currently based in Metro Manila one in Makati, another in Quezon City, and soon in Paranaque.

"We want to zero in on areas in the regions where there is a dense student population since we are really targeting the fresh graduates to man our call centers," Montenegro said.

With the University of the Philippines Baguio, Saint Louis University, University of Baguio and others supplying the needed human resource, the summer capital of the country tops PLDT's list of prospective regional sites. However, the city's under-developed telecommunication infrastructure prevents it from becoming an ideal site for call center operations.

Dumaguete City in the southern tip of Negros Island is a perfect alternative. A stone's throw away from thriving Cebu, the city is home to Silliman University and boasts of a robust telecommunication infrastructure.

"We want to disperse our call centers so we are currently looking at provincial sites. Not only do we want to bring these jobs to the countryside, we want to tap the talents of the youth in these areas without relocating them to Manila," she said.

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