SENEGAL WANTS TO BREAK IN THE CALL CENTRE BUSINESS

Computing

Senegal's attempt to break into the European call center business has not been easy In the blue-carpeted office of the PCCI call center, young men and women sit before banks of glowing computer screens, murmuring softly into the telephone. The French callers at the other end of the line don't realize that their call is being answered from 2,500 miles away in Dakar, Africa – from a cement and glass building tucked away at the end of a dirt road in a suburb of the Senegalese capital. Welcome to the latest phase of globalization touching Africa.

An undersea electronic highway along the coastline, along with a plentiful supply of French-speaking workers, has enabled Senegal to break into Europe's emerging call center market. But the poverty-stricken country's weak infrastructure and the protectionism of its former colonial power France remain major obstacles to a prosperous future. In a historic irony, the perceived "threat" to French jobs comes from the country's one-time supplier of slave labor.

Some 600 years ago, Europeans landed on Senegal's sandy beaches in search of slaves and gold, and dragged the country into the most sordid phase of globalization. Even when slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century, French colonial rulers forced former slaves into the army. The so-called "Tirailleurs Senegalais" fought for France as late as the 1950s. Now France, worried about its own rising youth unemployment, has little use for the former colony and its unemployed workers.

In the face of intensified global competition, French companies have sought ways of cutting costs by off-shoring production and outsourcing some business processes, especially client support and promotion. This is where a French-speaking former colony, like Senegal, or protectorates, like Morocco and Tunisia, come in. Some 10,000 of France's 250,000 call center jobs have been outsourced to these Francophone countries.

The combination of a French education and a high unemployment rate (40 percent) lends Senegal a grim competitive advantage over other Francophone countries hungry for outsourced jobs. (Unemployment is 10 percent in Mauritius, 15 percent in Tunisia, and 20 percent in Morocco) Senegal-based call centers now provide receptionists for French doctors, lawyers, and bankers. Tele-operators of the Premium Contact Center International (PCCI), for example, also enlist new customers for telephone and internet service providers and conduct telephone surveys for clients.

"We launched our operation by offering a price 20 to 40 percent cheaper than in France," says Abdoulaye Sarre, the soft-spoken CEO of PCCI. He explains that while call center jobs in France offer poor pay and low esteem, in Senegal they hold potential for a whole new career in client counseling with higher than average salaries. Senegal's relatively solid telecommunication infrastructure and location along the path of the transatlantic undersea fiber-optic cable (which links Europe to Latin America) allow companies like PCCI to tap directly into the internet backbone. By using inexpensive voice-over internet telephony (VOIP), the company has significantly lowered its costs.

PCCI started in 2002 with between 30 and 40 employees; it now employs about 1300 people. The client base has risen from a mere couple to a dozen, ranging from telecom operators to internet service providers to mail-order companies. Sarre, for his part, says growth is propelled more by quality than cost. The companies risk their brand name by outsourcing customer care to vendors like PCCI and will do so only with the assurance of quality service.

Once hired, the PCCI employees are trained in neutral accented French and general knowledge about France. At the end of the training, an employee should also be able to recognize regional accents.

Further, workers must be aware of the latest regional developments; for instance, Sarre explains, if there were a major accident – a factory explosion, say – in Tolouse, then callers should know not to dial that area. Every morning before the employees sit at their computers and telephones, they are briefed on two or three major developments in France and check on the regional weather reports. "Today it is raining a lot in the Calais region, and people tend to stay indoors so it is probably a good time to call," explains Sarre.

The average call center salary of US$220 to US$275 a month is more than five times the average in the country. Understandably, then, the call centers attract the best and brightest of the university graduates. At PCCI, the salary can be supplemented by the classic capitalist tool of incentives. If a telemarketer surpasses the assigned target, a white envelope containing a crisp CFA 5,000 bill (about US$10) is ceremoniously handed over amidst general applause in the hall.

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