Irish Call Centers Shift Focus to Integrated Operations

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CHICAGO - Ireland has shifted emphasis from standalone call center development to more integrated corporate facilities that include manufacturing as well as shared and technical services. The shift comes after a five-year surge that saw Ireland build a $3 billion telecom network and offer tax and other incentives to attract foreign call centers generating well-paying jobs.


The program worked with airlines, rental cars and other reservation facilities requiring call-center activities setting up in Ireland. Independent call centers like ICT followed, and so did major computer manufacturers.


Last year, however, call center growth declined, said Dermot Clohessy, the Chicago-based senior VP of IDA Ireland, the government industrial development agency.


"We've not seen much action from US call center bureaus going into Europe. In fact, I am not aware of any major bureau coming into Europe over the last 12 months."


Companies already in Europe, he noted, have expanded operations. He cited Tampa-based Sykes which bought the Rand McNally facility in Shannon as one example and a Sitel expansion as another.


Sitel bought TMS, a small Irish call center company, in 1997 and has announced "a major expansion around that to support Sitel's European business." Size is open-ended and will be linked to Sitel's overall European growth. "They're looking at several hundred positions in their Dublin-based pan-European center that has a strong UK focus."


There have been new entrants into Ireland over the past year, however. Clohessy cited RCI - Resort Condominiums International, a Cendant subsidiary specializing in time shares, swapping and brokerage - which is opening a pan-European call center in Cork.


And Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth International, a major player in corporate travel management, plans to open a call center between Limerick and Cork in Kilarney county to support corporate clients.


Call centers, Clohessy noted, "are not getting highlighted as much by themselves as being one activity in a range of activities, as part of a new business model built on the principle of centralized services to support customer or company activities across Europe."


Thus Xerox is setting up an integrated project that involves manufacturing, shared services and technical services. The facilities will be split between Dublin and the Irish countryside.


Sea-Land Services, a part of the CSX shipping transport company, is centralizing operations in Cork where documents flowing in from various port activities around Europe will be processed and have "elements of customer support attached."


Citibank has announced facilities that will employ more than 1,000 in Dublin, a number expected to hit 2,000 soon. The facility will have "elements of processing, customer support and services," Clohessy said. "It will deal with the bank's branch network around Europe with service both internally to Citibank as well as to third parties outside Citibank's direct employees."


Shared services, Clohessy explained, "is where a company sets up a facility in Ireland which supports the company's multiple operations in other sites around Europe.


"Say a company has five manufacturing facilities spread across the continent. Its Irish operation would centralize financial processing in one site for those five plants. That's a shared services-type operation and call centers would be one part of it."


IBM is a typical example of this trend, Clohessy said. "It established a campus-type operation from manufacturing to customer service. They plan to employ several thousand people for all the integrated functions, of which the call center is one.


"The call center employs 700 people and that makes it one of significant size. Interestingly, IBM provides technical support out of Ireland for their PCs in the US. This plays into the scenario of seeing Europe as part of a global corporate structure."


In trying to attract more integrated companies to set up in Ireland, the government is tying to add value to operations.


There is a need to do this as pure call center operations experience labor problems. Multilingual personnel are becoming hard to find as the available labor pool is used up. Ireland is pushing more educational programs to strengthen language skills.


Finally, IDA is trying to locate new facilities outside the Dublin area, which has one million of Ireland's three million people and is the country's economic hub - with consequently higher costs. Locating in the countryside helps companies avoid some of the competitive pressures that a successful economy brings with it, he said.
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