Cross-Border Firms Realize NAFTA Opportunities

Go west young man, go west, or should it be … go south! The famous words expressed by Horace Greeley last century indicating where opportunity was found for the 1800's, may be wise words of direction as we approach the new millennium and the 21st century. With one small change in the compass heading, that is. Just 90 degrees left brings us to a new heading, due south, and we find ourselves in Monterrey, Mexico — 90 minutes by air from Dallas.

Thanks to the North America Free Trade Agreement, international opportunities are much closer than we think and much easier than they may appear.

In addition to a strong demand for U.S. goods in Mexico, there is also a solution for reaching the U.S. Hispanic market numbered at more than 27 million people at the end of 1996. This market is almost identical in size to the entire population of Canada. The Hispanic market in the United States is growing at about three times the rate of inflation and is currently valued at about $375 billion in buying power, according to American Demographics.

For years, we have heard about the shrinking world and expanding global markets. True as that is, for those of us with little or no international marketing experience, where do we start? How do some of us who are not like General Motors or General Electric take advantage of the cross-border commerce NAFTA is intended to foster?

A real-life working example of NAFTA at its best is found operating with a cross-border teleservices agency functioning in Monterrey.

Monterrey is the second largest city in Mexico. For years it has been regarded as a commercial and manufacturing center, and today — not unlike many U.S. cities — it is making the conversion to hi-tech opportunities. Monterrey boasts world-class talent and facilities at Mexico's leading engineering school, Technologica de Monterrey.

In just two short years, a strong and viable teleservices business has been built in the city, due to the outstanding people it has been able to recruit, train and keep. Another key factor has been the quality of its technology organization and, in particular, proprietary database methods.

Of course, you will find the obligatory ACD and predictive dialer. How else to manage and enjoy the efficiencies of a 1,000-seat call center? U.S. technology abounds. Mainstream call center hardware and software are running and adapted to both the Mexican and the U.S. Hispanic market.

Tour the floor and you will quickly come to see that not only is the standard call center technology in place, but also there are U.S. call standards for service levels, abandonment rates, quality development, methodology and practices. (Note that the Northern Mexico speech pattern is an unaccented and non-colloquial Spanish that is easily understandable by any Spanish speaker.)

One other standard of U.S. teleservices agencies is also in place. The clients. You find all the usuals. That is, the very same market segments that are here in the states: financial services, telecommunications, hi-tech, packaged goods, insurance, retailers, and, of course, direct marketers.

The real surprise, however, is that numbered among the clients are not just many of the top firms in Mexico, but many name brand U.S. companies. These range from banks to long-distance suppliers, paging companies to infomercial marketers.

Many of these companies are marketing in Mexico to the Mexican population. However, many of these corporations are also taking advantage of the inherent language skills and cultural benefits in serving the U.S. Hispanic market from Mexico.

Telecommunications network design has been carefully crafted to allow the routing of calls seamlessly between the United States and its call center in Monterrey.

For years the Hispanic market has been problematic for traditional U.S. marketers. Where do I go for Spanish speaking service? Is the Spanish of high quality? Do they really have the capacity to handle my volume? And most problematic, who will translate the scripts? Not to mention, will the scripts be simply translated or will they be adapted to fit the Hispanic culture?

These and a myriad of other questions is being answered every day in Monterrey with each call passed from the U.S. and each call made to U.S. Hispanic households.

One U.S.-based paging company, for example, has found that the center is not only providing the level of service required, but is actually outperforming U.S. call centers.

How can these kind of positive results be accomplished in Mexico? The secret is in the technology, right? Well, it doesn't hurt, but the real so-called secret is in the labor.

Even though we have all known the value of our individual TSR's and CSR's, it has just been in the last few years that we as an industry have really started to focus on what it takes to keep them not just productive, but happy with their jobs. And let's face it, it is still an issue today. How do we recruit, train and retain the right kind of people for the all-important front line jobs in our call centers?

Mexico has some distinct advantages. To begin with, they enjoy an abundance of labor, and the front line call center jobs are considered very, very good jobs in the Mexican economy.

Not only is it a quality working environment, but also one where many of today's computer skills can be put to work and further refined.

In Mexico, entry level teleservices jobs provide valuable economic resources for families today and truly prepare individuals for further job growth tomorrow. At the same time, U.S. corporations win by finding real solutions to business opportunities as they further reach the Hispanic segment of the U.S. population or feed Mexico's seemingly unending appetite for U.S. products and services.

One big advantage with Mexico over other foreign destinations (Europe for example) is its proximity to the United States. It's literally next door and with the continued growth and implementation of NAFTA, the system is simply becoming more accustomed to this type of cross-border work.

As many U.S. companies have found, it is possible to realize the mutual benefits of NAFTA.

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