Canada's Call Center Industry Is Thriving

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TORONTO - Canada's call center industry is flourishing thanks to the Internet revolution and a migration of call center operators from the US, especially financial services firms.

Growth in marketing cellular phones is also helping, and so will utility deregulation that begins to take effect this summer. US credit card marketers have been most active, selling both into Canada and the lower 48 states.

Operators are seeking to leverage Canada's weak dollar, its higher unemployment rate and its modern telecommunications infrastructure by setting up shop north of the US border.

Among US-based marketers that operate significant Canadian call center operations serving both the US and Canada are IBM, Ford, Bank One and MBNA Corp.

The growth of the Internet economy also is having an impact on call centers, as the need for customer service and customer relationship management increases the need for phone-agent support.

Like their US counterparts, Canadian call centers also are evolving into contact centers where agents handle customer communications through a variety of media, such as e-mail and live text chat.

Each of the 10 Canadian provinces has its own marketing initiatives to lure call centers, but operators repeatedly point to Ontario, home to Canada's largest city, Toronto, as the prime development area for their activity.

"Ontario is the largest province and has the luxury of the largest labor pool," said Tony Nadra, vice president of customer service and call center operations at American Express Canada.

"But Quebec is starting to make quite a bit of noise, and they have higher unemployment. New Brunswick and Winnipeg are traditional call center locations, and they do very good marketing."

Nadra, who also is the chairman of the Teleservices Council of the Canadian

Marketing Association, said Alberta has stepped up its marketing efforts to lure call centers. "All of the provinces offer quite a bit in the form of incentives, no matter where you go," he said.

The national unemployment rate in Canada has declined steadily from above 12 percent in 1992 to less than 8 percent last year, which is still higher than the US rate, indicating a larger available pool of labor.

Although most call center activity focuses on calls to and from the US and Canada in English and French, call centers sometimes leverage Canada's linguistic diversity to secure speakers of other languages.

Craig Meilleur, president of Sitel Canada, which operates four contact centers here, said US marketers find it easier to staff multilingual call centers in Canada because facilities tend to be in urban centers whereas in the US they are often in rural areas with less linguistic diversity.

"Toronto and Montreal have an incredibly diverse multilingual population," he said. "We see US corporations that want to do some in-language marketing turning to Canadian organizations because we have this language ability."

Londa Burke, vice president of operations at The People Bank, a Toronto-based staffing service that supplies agents for call centers nationwide, said her company often fields requests for call center agents who speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Punjabi, Spanish, German and French.

Call centers in eastern Canada often look for Cantonese and Mandarin speakers to contact Vancouver which has a large colony of Chinese residents. And with six million French speaking Canadians, mostly in Quebec and New Brunswick, centers do much business in French.

Canada's English speakers also are prized among US companies, Meilleur said, because they have an easily understandable accent - unlike some regional accents heard in the US - and because they tend to have a pleasant phone manner.

"I know that a number of clients we spoke with said they want to have Canadian operations because the quality of voice is very high," he said.

Nadra of American Express Canada said the success of several large companies' call centers is serving to lure additional operators. In addition, he said, several US companies that provide outsourced services have moved aggressively into the market, in some cases buying the facilities of smaller operators to move into the market.

"In the last five years," he said, "the industry has just boomed."

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