Establishing International Call Centers Presents Obstacles, Rewards

Establishing call centers overseas can boost your company's growth and widely expand your client base, but before you set sail in international waters, you'll need to carefully chart a course. For all of the benefits of entering an emerging foreign market, some choppy waters may lie between you and an exotic golden shore.

As president of international sales for ICT Group, Inc., an independent provider of teleservices and call center management, I have experienced both the frustration and the thrill of going multinational. Overall, it has been tremendously rewarding and unquestionably worthwhile, but we encountered many obstacles along the way.

ICT Group first crossed “the pond” in 1994 to establish a call center in Dublin, Ireland, where we were involved in a joint venture with a large, established Irish company. We assumed that our relationship with the Irish company would make the transition easier, yet we still encountered many surprises. Telephony was not as advanced as what we were used to in the U.S. (it has since caught up), installations and furniture deliveries required two to three times the amount of lead time we were accustomed to, and we had to learn to adjust to a different business culture. Although in many ways we stumbled through the set-up of the Dublin call center, we learned a lot from the experience, we honed our communication skills, and eventually we accomplished everything we needed to in order to complete the center.

In October 1994, we opened the Dublin call center-the first location of ICT Eurotel. The facility looked great, and we were eager to start introducing our services to European companies. However, we hadn't realized how much we would have to alter our sales approach. American companies tend to be more familiar with the nuances of teleservices, but in Europe where the market for teleservices is still emerging, potential clients often need more information on the benefits and the mechanics of interfacing with teleservice providers. In addition, we had to learn to work with translators to communicate with non-English speaking clients. It can be a challenge to rely on someone else to phrase your words; you never know if the translator is picking up on your verbal nuances, your humor, your energy, etc.

Language differences and relative lack of familiarity with teleservices continue to be issues, even after clients sign up with us. ICT Eurotel call centers must be prepared to offer services in as many as a dozen languages. The advice for dealing with foreign client is simple: Be willing to go the extra mile, and you will be able to build strong relationships. You won't have the opportunity to deliver great results unless you first make it known to the client that you respect his business needs.

In emerging markets, clients are often surprised by the power of teleservices. When they start to see the positive results, their belief in your company's abilities often skyrockets. However, you must continue to accommodate each foreign client's special needs.

In order to deliver great services and support, naturally you need a caring staff, and since most of this staff likely will be foreign, your company will have to bone up on the local employment laws, culture and work ethic. Rely also on your common sense. If you are sensitive to and respectful of your workers, you will have much more success at maintaining a high-quality staff.

ICT Group's experience with employees in other countries has been very positive. We have found them to have an excellent work ethic, though they are generally not as work-obsessed as Americans tend to be. They place a high value on time with their families, so don't assume that your employees abroad will be willing to regularly sacrifice their personal time. Local holidays are important as well. Make it your business to familiarize yourself with these holidays and plan the appropriate days off for observance.

Effective communication with employees in other countries is a skill that must be developed with experience. It is important to learn local phrases and colloquialisms. Your company may possess great skills for communicating with American workers, but you may have to adjust some of your methods to get the best results from foreign employees. We found this much more complex than we expected, but by making it a priority, we have been able to develop and maintain a high level of communication with our workers abroad.

On a technical note, ICT Group's foreign call centers use dedicated Republic RLX Voice Compression Multiplexers to transmit data and keep in touch with the company's corporate headquarters in Langhorne, PA. Staff is supported by state-of-the-art IBM RS/6000 computer systems that employ our proprietary software and the AT&T Definity G3i ACD call distribution system for routing and queuing telephone calls to the appropriate language-skilled operators.

We at ICT Group are glad that we made the decision to expand our business beyond the U.S. The combination of the expansion with our commitment to client service and has made us a leader in international teleservices.

So if you're thinking of going global, don't let the obstacles prevent you from entering the largely untapped international market. If you're determined and flexible, chances are you won't encounter anything you can't handle. So go for it. There are a lot of businesses out there who would love to achieve the success that only teleservices can provide.

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