Australia Jockeys to Be Call Center Hub for Asia-Pacific Region

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SYNDEY - Australia has grabbed a 25-percent market share in Asia-Pacific's booming call center business, with its 1,200 facilities accounting for $2 billion of the regional industry's $8.3 billion in 1998 sales.

Companies using Australia to set up pan-Asian call centers in recent years include Citibank, Compaq, Iridium, Novell and Lufthansa. They take calls in a bevy of languages including Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

They came because it "offers a unique overall value equation based on political stability and on a strong economy that weathered the Asian crisis," said Mara Moustafine, senior vice president at Telstra, Australia's semi-privatized telecom.

Other key factors include a transparent regulatory environment, a legal framework, a deregulated telecom market, a government favorable to foreign investment, geographic proximity to Asian markets, and a developed IT and telecom infrastructure. The country has a well-educated, highly skilled, multilingual work-force with an English language base and a service culture, she added.

A multilingual call center in Australia can handle 12 to 14 languages with native capability. Growing Asian immigration has given the country people who can speak 150 languages and dialects. Some 20 percent of the population is now Asian-born.

A growing number of multinationals have taken a bullish position on Asia, even though the region has not fully recovered from the 1997-98 financial and economic crisis and from the resulting political uncertainties.

Economic forecasters predict Asia will account for 25 percent of global GDP early in the next century and harbor almost one-third of global purchasing power.

Moustafine puts that at close to $7 trillion, not far behind North America and Europe's combined purchasing power, now estimated at $8.5 trillion.

Asia's middle class is hard to gauge, but Telstra estimates that 400 million families in the region have access to disposable income.

Moustafine predicted the middle class would grow by 30 million a year, mostly in northern Asia, boosting demand for consumer goods, infrastructure, services, and technology.

Global marketers who hope to tap this pool of wealth have begun to consolidate regional operations into one call center. Most such regional hubs are already located in Australia.

Moustafine estimates there are 130 in Asia, with 110 of them in Australia. The rest are scattered among competitors like Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

As Telstra continues on the path to privatization, it has played a growing role in attracting foreign business.

The company is in touch with 1.8 million customers every day, and has helped more than 200 multinationals deliver customer contact solutions.

Profits for 1998 were $1.6 billion on revenues of $14 billion. It maintains head offices in Sydney and the Melbourne. Moustafine said both are equal in importance.

"Geography is irrelevant," she said. "We live in virtual reality."

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