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 Offshore but upmarket

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PostSubject: Offshore but upmarket   Tue Apr 05, 2011 5:13 pm

[size=55:mhnk0eq0]Sofia echo

Offshore but upmarket

On your way to a meeting you sometimes picture the scene in advance. In the taxi to 60K, a company dealing in international contact centres, I expected to find my interviewee, Phil Clayton, in a medium-sized office. I counted on about 20 staff – tops – speaking accented "
mittel"
English. So imagine my surprise when I find cavernous offices with more than 300 staff, beavering away in perfect, ever so "
neutral"
English.

60K, a rapidly growing outsourcing contact centre that opened in 2008, employs staff in Bulgaria to man the phones for companies based overseas. Once a business has contracted out its call service, 60K recruits local staff and trains them in line with the client's service standards. Although 60K is the official employer, when customers ring the company concerned – let's cite the case of BE Broadband, part of 02, a high speed UK-based broadband internet service provider (ISP) – it's as though they have come through to the ISP itself in the UK. In reality, they have come through to operators more than 2000 kilometres away.

It appears that the old joke about getting through to India when you ring your local bank one rainy day in Scarborough is not totally baseless. More and more companies are sub-contracting their call centre services overseas. And, according to Clayton, 60K's business development director, there could be an element of concealment in many companies that claim otherwise.

"
You may, in the first instance, reach someone in the UK but then 80 per cent of your calls are probably transferred offshore – to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, or the Philippines, for example,"
says Clayton, a burly 50-year-old with a deep voice and a particular fondness for the Bulgarian countryside.

Cutting costs

The advantages of offshore call centres for UK companies are obvious. The client benefits from reduced labour costs by contracting out to another country – in this case Bulgaria – where wages are lower but staff are well qualified.

Not that 60K is run as a skinflint operation. Far from it;
Clayton says his employees are well paid by Bulgarian standards. They are also ferried to work in special minibuses – 60K's office is out of the city centre – and have generous health care benefits and bonuses. In return, the dedicated Sofian staff provide BE Broadband customers with a top-quality service.

"
When BE Broadband was named best large-size internet service provider in the UK, based on customer service, it was really 60K's 90-strong team in Bulgaria who could claim the credit for the award,"
says Clayton.

The Bulgarians change their names ever so slightly to accommodate British callers. Hence Georgi becomes George, or Stefan becomes Stephen, although Clayton says they are under no compulsion to do so. The fact that – for example – BE's call centre is in Bulgaria is not a trade secret, but Clayton says some other clients of his are more sensitive about revealing such details.

Clayton rates the service his team provides, according to particular criteria.

"
We charge our customer a contractually agreed sum for providing a certain service and we have key performance indicators. For example, how many missed calls have there been? How long did customers wait? How long was the call? The whole purpose of the service level agreement with the client company is to reduce the waiting time,"
says Clayton.

"
The mindset of our people is not that they are 60K, but that they represent BE Broadband,"
he says.

Easy on the ear

At 60K they take particular care to guard against condescension to clients.

"
We recognise if a client is frustrated because his modem isn't working. We don't tell people to 'make sure it's turned on'. We say – 'presumably the modem is on' and then offer other alternatives to what the problem might be."


Outsourcing a call centre, believes Clayton, can even be – ironically – easier for callers from the UK as well as less costly for the UK-based service provider.

"
If you're a business and you have a call centre in the North West of England or even in Scotland, then you'll be paying at least minimum wage salaries to your staff. In Bulgaria we're offering a very intellectual and articulate service for less money. Our staff don't have much of an accent. People can find it frustrating speaking to someone with a heavy northern accent if they're phoning from Portsmouth. Whereas, if they ring here to Sofia, the accent is pretty neutral."
All employees at 60K speak excellent English and, Clayton says, "
the vernacular of our staff is received very positively"
.

He adds that his company has passed ISO 9001 accreditation, a quality management standard issued by the International Organisation for Standardisation. "
Some of our competitors claim that they are so accredited but when you check what they're accredited in, it's only in a certain line of their business. If a client is ISO 9001 accredited and then they decided to outsource a service, they can't outsource to someone not covered by ISO,"
he says.

Not afraid of competition

Clayton has been in Bulgaria for seven years. He was involved in real estate and facilities management between 2004 to 2008. Before that he lived and worked in the UK, doing, at various times, long commutes between Cambridge and Leatherhead, and before that to central London for a telecoms job that involved a daily six-hour round trip. Clayton wanted no more of that.

"
I saw more opportunities here at that time,"
says Clayton, referring to the period in 2008 when he had to decide his next career move. "
I didn't want to go back to the UK. I set up my own consultancy firm and discussed with Jonathan Gladwish (CEO of 60K) the possibility of renting this building (in Kliment Ohridiski Blvd) on a long-term lease."


60K opened its doors in June 2008 and now employs a total of 380 staff who work as telephone operators for various overseas firms, BE Broadband included.

Is there a risk, I wonder, that 60K could be undercut by other Eastern European countries?

"
Romania has got call centre activities around Bucharest,"
says Clayton. "
They primarily offer Italian language skills as well as some Russian and English. We think it's good to have healthy competition next door. Salaries are higher in Romania than they are here. Do I see salaries increasing in Bulgaria? It's clear that they will have to increase in line with inflation..."

Is that a double-edged sword for you?

"
We have to keep it competitive but at the end of the day if prices go up then we're pretty confident that prices will go up elsewhere. Bulgaria's inflation rate will not exceed – hugely – the inflation rate of the UK or India. If we price ourselves competitively, respect our employees and offer them the right benefits, then our staff retention, which has been good, will continue that way,"
says Clayton.

Bulgarian brain drain?

Some offshore call centres, he concedes, have a rather bad name in the UK because callers claim to have been badly treated. Not so at 60K, says Clayton, who interests potential clients mostly by recommendation of satisfied customers.

"
We use consultants who know of companies looking to outsource their call centres. It's a very cut-throat business because there are so many call centres out there. So to reach the stage of submitting a proposal to these customers is a good milestone. The next step is to get potential customers to come here and speak to our people. Sometimes, too, I go over to the UK and they can see our call centres on the laptop. I can put the speaker on and they can hear the quality of our staff."


Clayton claims that the quality of Bulgarian job applicants is very high. They have excellent English and sometimes other languages – French, German and Russian – as well as advanced IT skills. "
From a technical perspective Bulgaria was the California of Eastern Europe, the silicon valley of the Balkans,"
he says.

Although the remuneration package at 60K is generous, Clayton does worry about a brain drain of talented youngsters overseas. Yet he thinks that many Bulgarians will choose to return after a period abroad.

"
I believe that it's good to travel – I've lived in many European countries – it makes you more tolerant to other cultures. I think it's a great idea for young people to leave Bulgaria and work somewhere else. But most of them will realise that they're not British or French or German, and that the grass is not greener in, for example, the UK or wherever they choose to go."


Key business

For Clayton, whose business is perhaps more resilient to domestic recession than others, the global economic meltdown has not been all bad.

"
A crisis can be beneficial in that it forces companies to examine ways to cut costs and evaluate what their key business is. Three or four years ago, Bulgarian companies were not interested in outsourcing. The Bulgaria way was to do it themselves, but now that's changing,"
he says.

So too is Bulgaria – for the better – says Clayton, who lives in Veliko Turnovo. When he travels to Sofia he likes to take the bus. "
One of the biggest improvements I've seen here is the countryside. Take the river Yantra. It was disgusting and the water smelled dreadful. There used to be thousands of plastic bottles in the water but there are nowhere near as many now."


He thinks that the Bulgarian authorities could promote their country better – a recurring complaint of many interviewees – to get beyond the cliched snow and sun attractions of Bulgaria as a package holiday destination, towards advertising "
its magnificent historic sites"
.

Meanwhile, Clayton seems very happy at 60K and, unlike other businesses, it is one that really has no ceiling. It's a case of onwards and upwards. He's currently investigating setting up a new business centre in Serbia, where prices are slightly higher. Only Albania, he says, has lower costs than Bulgaria in Europe. Last year he went to Tirana on a reconnaissance mission but concluded that the country was not quite ready yet, although he says it's on "
his radar"
.

Watch this space.

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PostSubject: Re: Offshore but upmarket   Tue Apr 05, 2011 10:10 pm

Congratulations to everyone at 60k. its nice to read about a success story.

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PostSubject: Re: Offshore but upmarket   Wed Apr 06, 2011 5:02 pm

Even more good news Thanks g

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PostSubject: Re: Offshore but upmarket   Thu Dec 22, 2011 5:46 pm

As a former Be customer in London, I can attest to the generally high quality of service there. It was a vast improvement on the previous Indian operation, where although the English was often OK, context and British idiom went out of the window and you often ended up repeating your problem several times over before they comprehended your problem.

Not so in Sofia.
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