Caribbean Beat Magazine

Calling the Caribbean

Call centres are fast becoming a feature of Caribbean business landscape. Mark Wilson explains

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Sea Moon, on the Atlantic coast of Grenada, has a pretty name and a chequered history – sugar cane plantation, coconut grove, lime orchard, horse racing in the 1950s and 1960s, big music events, political rallies, industrial estate. But since July 18, 2000, it’s just one hop by satellite from North America. Dial a US 1-  800 number, and you could be talking to Call Centres, Grenada. Same story if you receive a sales or research call, generated by software which works out who to call, and when to call them. In many cases, a voice response can enter the client’s needs directly into a database.

Call Centres Grenada has close to 700 telemarketing agents, in more than 20,000 square feet of shiny office space. There are plans to take on more by Christmas, more again over the next three years. The operators are working on both consumer-oriented and business-to-business tasks – sales and market surveys outsourced by Fortune 500 companies and other clients. The investors behind this US$6m project are Grenadians. Key figures are Denis Campbell and Neville Calliste, each with experience in telecoms (yes, you guessed right), utilities, and management. They have moved fast – the project was dreamt up only in September 1999. The staff at the call centres are young Grenadians, most of them 17 to 21 years old, but some up to 40, and most with three or more CXC “O” Level passes.

The company has its own earth station, and a two-way satellite link to Florida – it can carry 720 simultaneous voice calls. This is more than three times the volume of normal Grenada- US call traffic handled by the traditional monopoly operator. Telemarketing is a US$200m business, globally. At present, 90 per cent is done in house, but the trend is towards outsourcing. For call centres, the annual growth is 23 per cent in North America, 17 per cent worldwide. There are an estimated 50,000 call centres in the US, and a worldwide total of 150,000. That, says Campbell, adds up to total employment of at least two million in the US, including operators, supervisors, administrators and management.

In the United States, the operators’ jobs are not considered high-end. Staff turnover averages 50 per cent a year, in some cases as much as 250 per cent. That means constantly recruiting and retraining staff. With an independent telecoms connection, total call-handling costs in most of the Caribbean are now less than 45 per cent of US rates; that includes wages, rents, electricity, satellite communications link, everything. With a smaller labour market, staff turnover is expected to be around 10 per cent a year, if that. Campbell believes the Caribbean can, in principle, attract half a million call centre jobs within a few years. And, there are other activities – medical billing, software, endless scope for growth.

That doesn’t just mean Grenada. Call Centres’ planned end- 2000 total of 1,700 jobs is equivalent to one in 25 of the island’s labour force. With construction also booming, there’s no unlimited labour pool to draw from. Literacy and educational requirements are also considerations in the recruitment strategy. Campbell is already talking about new call centres operations outside Grenada. Discussions are in progress with the governments of St Lucia and St Vincent, and another larger, Caribbean country.

Industries such as this will benefit from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States’ telecoms liberalisation policy, aimed at breaking the current monopoly in regional communications. By October, a new Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority – .Ectel – was expected to be up and running, replacing national telecoms regulators in five OECS countries – Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia, Dominica and St Kitts- Nevis.

It is expected to issue licences to new operators, starting with value-added services such as cellular, then moving on to basic voice and international services. Elsewhere in the region, Jamaica is scheduled to complete telecoms liberalization by 2003; Guyana is expected to move faster after a slow start; and change is also expected in Trinidad and Tobago and in Barbados. Barbados Shipping and Trading, the island’s major conglomerate, plans a joint-venture e-commerce project for four Caribbean call centres, in partnership with the Key Technologies group of the UK and Trinidad-based Neal and Massy.

Some governments are thinking big, and spending big too, to attract employment. Jamaica’s technology minister Phillip Paulwell announced in August that his government would sign a Memorandum of Understanding providing US$6.75m in loan finance as well as other assistance for three information technology firms whose planned projects would provide 15,000 jobs over the next three years. Netserv of Trinidad and Tobago, he said, intends to provide 10,000 jobs, starting this year. Jamaica Call Centres Ltd projects 5,000 new jobs over the next three years, beginning with 1,500 this year in the Kingston Freezone; and a Jamaican company, Baytel, plans to provide just under 400 jobs.

Jamaica wants to attract 40,000 new call centre jobs, and plans to invest close to US$115m in the industry by 2003, including a US$24m venture capital loan fund and US$12m in training grants. The Baltimore-based SITEL Corporation, with local partners, in July opened a 30,000- square-foot centre in Montego Bay with 500 jobs in electronic Customer Relationship Management (eCRM, if you are fond of initials, using chat as well as e-mail) and back-office information services.

If there are limits to the growth of Caribbean call centres, they are likely to be on the supply end – recruiting enough staff with the skills to service high-end clients effectively. There are demands on literacy, numeracy, and technical competence. As with so many Caribbean growth industries, the real infrastructural investment has to be in education.