Convergys stays bullish on Philippines

MANILA (10/27/2003) - U.S.-based contact center provider Convergys Corp. is building a third call center in the Philippines, proof, the company says, that it remains confident in investing in the country despite repeated travel advisories of foreign governments to avoid coming here.

Convergys president Jack Freker, who was in Manila last week, expects the company to open the third call center in Alabang by the third quarter of 2004. The company recently opened its first two call center sites in the Enterprise Center in Makati and the Robinsons Equitable building in Pasig. The firm, so far, employs around 500 call center agents. Based on its projections, some 3,000 employees will occupy 1,500 seats when the third site opens next year.

Freker said Convergys remains confident in the local economy and its people despite warnings from other governments " the most recent of which came from Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill " not to invest in the country. "We're opening a third call center next year and this is good evidence that we remain confident in the country. Some of the (adverse) issues (like terrorism) are similar to concerns in other countries like India, China, or even the U.S.," he noted.

"We continue to be supportive of efforts to make the Philippines a good place to do business in," he said.

But like other call center providers before it, Convergys realizes that finding the right people to take customer service calls for its clients is not as easy as the government had promised it would be.

At one point, the company took in 500 applicants who passed preliminary screenings during a recent job fair it conducted but, in the end, only "10 to 18 people passed our requirements," lamented Marife Zamora, Convergys vice president and country general manager in the Philippines.

"Maybe the reason very few qualified is that we have high standards," she explained, "but if (this problem) is not addressed by the government and the private sector, it could hamper the growth of the industry."

Convergys is not the first call center provider to complain about the low fill rate for call center vacancies. During the E-Service Forum held early this year, Bong Borja, president of the Contact Center Federation of the Philippines, said call centers are having a hard time finding qualified people to fill vacant call center seats.

Despite this problem, the local call center industry is poised for growth, thanks largely to marketing efforts by the government and private firms. From less than 1,000 seats in 2000, the industry has over 20,000 seats today with the capacity expected to grow 200 percent by next year.

But the industry's growth path could hit a snag if providers continue to struggle filling their vacancies. Borja said there are about 50,000 to 60,000 vacancies in contact centers every month but for every 100 job applicants, only two or three are eventually hired by call center employers.

Zamora said the problem should not be left to the government to solve alone. The private sector must also be involved, particularly in improving the English language skills of local graduates.

To help find a solution, Convergys is working out a number of agreements with local universities, said Zamora. She, however, declined to discuss the details of these initiatives until the talks are finalized.

Reacting to the recent advisory against the Philippines by Australia's Hill, Trade and Industry Secretary Manuel Roxas II said the warning is "certainly something that we can do without."

Roxas admitted that such warnings hamper efforts to promote the country as an outsourcing hub.

"(This is why) the President has taken the lead role in promoting the country abroad. We do have some challenges, but business is still being conducted (despite these threats)," he said.

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