Belgian Call Centers Enjoy Strong Growth

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ANTWERP, Belgium - Belgium's call center industry is growing at 20 to 25 percent annual clip and it may be growing even more rapidly than that, according to Dirk Marien, president of the Belgian DMA's teleservices council.

"My colleagues on the council are having a lot of contacts with larger Belgian companies who want to enlarge their existing call centers or open new in-house facilities," said Marien, whose company, Marien & Gybels Teleservices, a part of the Dutch SNT group, is based here.

"We just finished a call center benchmark report where we asked people to comment on call center operations. We found that call centers handle 70 percent inbound and 30 percent outbound calls.

"Some 45 percent of incoming and 30 percent of outbound calls are customer service traffic; 14 percent of incoming calls are help desk related and 12 percent are order-taking calls. Almost 20 percent of outbound calls are sales calls and 10 percent are lead generation."

Unlike other European countries, notably Germany, Belgian telemarketers are free of legal restrictions. "We have had our own code of ethics for years where we put some restrictions on calls and when they are made.

"In an outbound situation you cannot call before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m., and not at all on Sundays or on bank holidays." Restrictions were developed by the Belgian DMA.

Heaviest call center users in Belgium are financial services - banks and insurance companies - the IT industry, mail order houses, telcos and the transport and travel industries, Marien said.

While his own company focuses on the Belgian market, he noted that "quite a few international call centers are located in Belgium."

He listed companies such as Nike and other multi-nationals, travel agencies and airlines as major users. Belgium, he noted, is home to 700 foreign companies. His own firm works for Microsoft, Apple, Coke and 3M.

Since Belgium is a tri-lingual country with people speaking Flemish, French and some German, local personnel are often bilingual, especially if the call center covers the Brussels region where both languages are spoken.

Flemish French does not go over well with native French speakers, Marien explained, but said the Flemish Belgians learn in school is adequate. "On the phone you can use a general Flemish. It's like the Queen's English."

Marien's company has handled fax and mail reply cards for a long time, using a small fulfillment center "where we can send out mailings, brochures and samples. Over the last year we have seen more and more e-mails coming in, too."

Telephone calls now are often sent an e-mail reply as follow-up. "We are dealing with a Web-enabled environment and we have hardware that can support Web-enabled solutions."

More formal training and education for call center work is also available in Belgium. The government supports training efforts since call centers are seen as job-creating engines.

"We're talking to the ministry of education about establishing training packages within schools so that people who major in office management, marketing or communications can add call center skills to their repertory."

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