Booming French Call Center Market Courts Companies Worldwide

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PARIS - American companies scrambled across last month's Salon europeene des Centres d'Appels (SeCA) call center conference held at La Defense in search of business in France's rapidly exploding call center industry.


Among those who attended were United States-based stalwarts such as Sitel, Convergys and Experian. Lucent displayed late technological breakthroughs. Unisys pushed technological help desks for call center operations. TSC Europe demonstrated its electronic support measures. Rockwell's e-commerce division showed off technology that won it the Disneyworld Paris call center prize. Teletech presented its portfolio of customer management solutions.


Alcatel showed an impressive display of telecom solutions from voice processing to mobile networks and the Internet. Advanstar helped manage the conference after taking a 50-percent stake in the show, which is owned my French publisher MM Editions, last year.


Americans were not the only foreigners interested in a French market that started taking off six months ago. Located in Scotland, a British firm looking for foreign investment, brazenly took a booth. So did TCS Management, an Indian software company that claims to be Asia's largest.


Most of the new business is still French, but the market is clearly in need of U.S. know-how and hardware, a fact the numbers alone confirm. The number of call centers in France was just under 2,000 last year and is expected to hit 2,500 in 2000 and nearly 3,000 in 2002.


Financial services accounted for 20 percent of all agent positions in France in 1997, according to a report from Datamonitor, a British market research firm. The report added that strong growth was expected in this sector "due to the competitive nature of the French market."


Call centers that served the manufacture and distribution of consumer products took a 19-percent agent share. Telecoms had 18 percent and travel and tourism accounted for 13 percent.


Unlike call center locations in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which have a strong pan-European orientation, French call centers tend to be regional rather than national or cross-border. That is beginning to change, however, as the French government tries to attract U.S. firms.


France Telecom, the former telephony monopoly that has faced competition since the EU deregulated telecommunications among members last year, has taken the lead here by opening two call center "hotels."


Both are in the Paris area and provide turnkey services that allow companies to get up and running immediately by leasing facilities staffed by teams of multilingual agents.


One building is located in Bagneux, just a few minutes south of Porte d'Orleans, the southern gateway out of the city. It includes state-of-the-art computer telephony systems and room for 400 agents.


With Microsoft as the first tenant, France Telecom figures it has a built-in showcase to attract other companies. Microsoft eventually plans to occupy half the site, although it has only about 60 agent positions now.


The Bagneux facility is designed for larger companies anxious to conduct business in France and Europe under at least a one-year lease.


The Opalis center in Bagnolet is geared to shorter-term business. In theory, companies could lease space for a day. In practice, however, managers prefer a three-week minimum.


"We have a wide range of offers," Opalis manager Philippe Millet said, "that can help U.S. companies start or expand."


France Telecom has developed a southern strategy it believes helps Americans target Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and France itself more effectively than companies can manage from Ireland or the U.K.


"Southern Europe is our target," Millet said, "but we can support all European countries and even global operations. We provide the manpower, mostly France Telecom employees, but we can also go outside to get the skills we don't have in-house. They are available in Paris."


France Telecom is building from broad experience gained in launching and managing the call center for Disneyland, Paris, an often troubled theme park in the Ile de France. The center has 150 agent positions and can handle order and inquiries in seven languages.
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