E-Commerce Fuels Call Center Boom

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NEW YORK - As the acceptance of e-commerce and its technology evolves, France stands to reap significant gains. Why?


Take this as a for instance: The independent research firm Forrester Research predicts that in as few as four years, 56 percent of all customer interactions will occur over the Internet. Forrester also predicts that actual phone contact will drop significantly, accounting for as little as 5 percent of all call center interactions.


If this comes even close to becoming a reality, the need for multimedia contact centers (call centers that incorporate the Web, e-mail, fax and phone) to handle customer contact will be staggering. In turn, the need for a trained and highly educated workforce, superior technological infrastructure and the right location will grow exponentially.


It is in this environment that France has become increasingly attractive to North American businesses looking to establish a call center, especially a multimedia one. With its highly educated workforce, sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure and its prime location in the heart of Europe, France has all the pieces in place for a business to build a successful call center.


According to the British research firm Datamonitor, by 2003, 570 of France's 2,950 call centers will be Web-enabled, an increase of 120 percent. This explosive growth spurt would place France among the top three European markets for Web-enabled call centers, along with Germany (the current leader) and the UK.


If the above scenario plays out as forecast, it bodes well for future foreign investment in French call centers. But it also begs a question. What is driving this growth in the French call center market?


The short answer is e-commerce. E-tailers selling goods over the Internet are the perfect fit for Web-enabled call centers that allow buyers to browse a site, as well as send e-mail or press a "click-to-talk" button to speak with a customer service representative, place an order or both.


Personal banking and financial services also are migrating to the Internet, and provide another market for Web-enabled call centers. Moreover, the booming European mobile phone market is driving the need for more customer service agents to handle inquiries, and call centers - Web-enabled or not - fulfill that need.


The French workforce is a highly educated one. The country has 114 universities, important because call centers often locate near academic hubs to capitalize on the available workforce and the ease of recruiting a well-educated or specialized employees.


A lot of students live in Paris, as do many expatriates and multilingual. Sophia Antipolis Science Park, located in the south of France, was developed as an advanced telecommunications zone, and attracts call centers with high-tech professionals.


High French unemployment - 10.8 percent - is another draw for call center site selection since it assures an abundant workforce and can thus be another deciding factor in site selection.


The importance of multilingual and native-speaking agents cannot be stressed enough, and native-speaking agents are even more important than multilingual ones, since natives speak in the same dialect as callers. In turn, this facilitates cross-selling and upselling by providing a more "regional" approach and personalized service to callers.


This is in France's favor since more native-speaking expatriates live there than any other EU country - 1.2 million including 60,000 Spaniards, 55,000 Italians, 500,000 Portuguese, 25,000 English and 25,000 Germans, making France an attractive location to site a regional call center, especially one that serves southern Europe.


France has the infrastructure in place to build a successful call center, including a 100 percent digital telecommunications network. The leading telecommunications carrier, France Telecom, is the second largest carrier in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. France also has the fourth-largest economy worldwide.


Datamonitor reports that France is more willing than other European countries to spend on technological upgrades, a trend that bodes well for the new "multimedia contact centers" that combine Web technology, email, phone and fax.


The French also are more willing to spend money for technology on call centers with less than 100 agents. This preference for smaller and more regional call centers is in France's favor, because, according to Datamonitor: "Today's small call centers are the medium to large call centers of tomorrow."


France offers its own set of benefits and incentives to entice businesses to locate in the country and has help from regional development agencies, as well as governmental agencies, such as Invest in France Agency.


While health and unemployment insurance as well as pensions are mandatory, French salaries have dropped slightly over the last five years and are competitive with what other countries offer.


Agent training in France is often sponsored by the state or region (Andersen Consulting). Local development agencies and the French Ministry of Labor offer training and hiring grants that range from 10,000 FF to 20,000 FF (about $1,700 to $3,300).


Moreover, agents in France are more loyal to their employer (Andersen Consulting), which means less turnover and less costs associated with rehiring.


As for incentives, they are generally customized to the business and given on a case by case basis. For a call center to be eligible for state incentives, it must employ a minimum of 20 agents; to qualify for regional incentives, the minimum is 10 agents.


The new breed of call center is not a cost center, but rather, a profit center. With the advent of new technology (i.e., the Internet), call centers are becoming an even more strategic tool for competitive companies looking to carve market share out of customer service.
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