Belgium Struggles to Catch Up in Call Center Race

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BRUSSELS - Belgium has launched a belated entry into the European call center sweepstakes with a "Belgium for Call Centers" project designed to make Europe's capital a focus of telemarketing activities.

Belgium has everything to offer that call center operators need and require, Patrick Marck of ABDM, the Belgian direct marketing association, claims. "Language and infrastructure are here," he said.

But he conceded that Belgium has had problems making its case. "There are too many authorities in Belgium who must decide where a call center should be placed before you can get authorization for it."

While the government offers incentives - as do most other European countries who see call centers as job-creating programs - location of these centers becomes a political problem.

The French speaking Walloons, the Flemish speakers in Flanders, and Brussels, a separate region, all compete for the telephone plum. But Marck believes that the new campaign and the philosophy behind it will help iron out the wrinkles.

"This is a multi-lingual country. You are in the center of Europe and in its capital. You can benefit from the infrastructure, the languages and our technical know-how," Marck said.

The "Belgium for Call Centers" project has the support of the federal government which will permit organizers to put up a Belgian pavilion at the Call Center Solutions '98 fair to be held in Amsterdam next May 12-13.

"The stand will allow us to present our products and services in a professional manner," a statement from the initiative's organizers said.

"In addition, we will launch an information campaign built around the utility of call centers in general and Belgium's advantage as a call center base in particular."

Belgacom, the national phone company, has been active in soliciting companies to set up call centers in Belgium. It has been getting strong support from Ameritech, the US baby bell that led a consortium in buying a 49 percent stake in the Belgian telecom in 1996.

Ameritech has provided its partner with executive, managerial and other talent to help bring the company up to international speed.

In addition, Zacson recently bought Marien & Gybels to form a joint venture. Together with Belgacom Zacson is a sponsor of the Belgian stand at the Dutch fair.

The neighboring Dutch take a far more jaundiced view of Belgian activities, however. Ruud Van Ooostven of the Dutch DMA thinks the Belgian lag 2-3 years behind other Europeans in adapting new call center technology tools.

He conceded that Belgians have an advantage in being able to speak and think in French but feels they lack in the needed educational resources for telemarketing.

A certain amount of friction has long existed between Dutch and Belgians but in this case it does reflect the increasingly competitive atmosphere among global call centers.

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