Scandinavian Market Warms to Call Center Development

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden - The Scandinavian countries are heating up as destinations for companies seeking to operate call centers, despite an increasingly restrictive legislative environment.

Deep Internet penetration in all four countries -- Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway -- is one reason and deregulation of utilities and telecommunications that prompt a need for inbound and outbound calling is another.

Norway and Denmark restrict outbound calling the most, with 20 percent of all Norwegians registered with the telephone preference service, meaning they do not wish to be called.

Denmark is tougher. Instead of opt-out regulations, the country has opt-in -- telemarketers can call only people who have consented to receive calls.

Sweden launched its own telephone preference service in April, and after a month, 25,000 people had signed on, according to Phillip Cohen, an international call center consultant who works out of Skelleftea in Northern Sweden. Finland is considering the opt-in approach.

But regulation has not slowed demand for customer service by phone, and more and more centers are being opened, with outsourcing a growing trend that has attracted multinational providers of those services. Some have bought Swedish companies to establish or bolster operations there.

Pan-European call center operators in the United Kingdom, Ireland and other sites also have been eyeing Scandinavian locations because native Scandinavian speakers are often hard to find and are more expensive out of country.

Others, including Hewlett-Packard, have moved away from the pan-European concept in favor of local call facilities with central backend management. HP has opened one in Sweden, and, Cohen said, other high-tech companies are thinking about it.

"In 1992, using pan-European call centers was the only way to tackle several different countries," he explained. "Now, pan-European call centers mean using multilingual people, who are much in demand and therefore a scarce and costly resource."

The industry is expected to grow significantly in all four countries over the next five years, the Invest in Sweden Agency has reported, with employment set to rise from 70,000 last year to 260,000 by 2004.

Sweden accounts for nearly half of that employment, with 30,000 employees last year and a projected 100,000 by 2004.

Sweden is making an aggressive effort to attract call centers to serve its own market and neighboring Denmark and Norway.

Finland hopes to become a hub for call center activities in the three Baltic countries to its south, Cohen said.

Still, more than a quarter of all Swedish call centers do accept calls in all four languages, including Finnish.

Transcom, which has U.S. headquarters in Indianapolis and is part of the Luxembourg-based Kinnevik-Millicom group, operates individual call centers serving each of the Scandinavian countries.

Delivery giant DHL International recently switched from operating a Swedish-only center to one serving Denmark and Norway as well.

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