Q&A: Colombia Faces its Shortcomings and Aims For Bigger Share of Higher-Value Services

In this discussion with Ricardo Duran, General Manager and Owner of Outsourcing, S.A., we talked about what the future might hold for Colombian BPO, and how higher-value skills could jettison the country into the big leagues of the nearshore contact center industry.

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Colombia’s BPO sector has always been one step behind its main Latin American rivals – Panama and Costa Rica. Companies providing BPO services in Colombia have always been highly concentrated in contact center services and collections, followed by logistics and human resources management, but the main hindrance to better growth rates is a lack of bilingualism.

In a discussion with Ricardo Duran, General Manager and Owner of Outsourcing, S.A., we talked about what the future might hold for Colombian BPO, and whether new technologies and a focus on higher-value skills could jettison the country into the big leagues of the nearshore contact center industry.

Nearshore Americas: What is the current lay of the land in Colombia’s BPO and contact center industry? How has the country been developing?

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Ricardo Duran: “We have to migrate entry-level agents into higher-value campaigns.”

Ricardo Duran: Colombia’s growth in revenue has been slow compared to other years. In the past few years, we grew 10%, but five years ago that was at 17-18%, so it looks like we’re getting a little more mature. In terms of services offshoring and exports, Colombia’s cut of that revenue is very low compared to Costa Rica or Mexico, for example. We don’t export more than 10%. This is because the English skills of Colombians are not the best. We have tonnes of quality people for the Hispanic market, but our English talent is very limited.

Colombians are very good at writing in English and with English grammar, but not speaking it. For anything that has to do with emails or chatting, we have great people. If you send me a campaign for emails, we can do that with hundreds of people; there is a large pool of that kind of talent here.

What is Colombia doing to help develop skills for the BPO sector? Are the educational initiatives working?

The government is promoting BPO through different institutions, and they are doing a very good job. The National Service of Learning (SENA, for its acronym in Spanish) is training people between high school and university that may not be able to afford higher education. For almost nothing, people can be trained in different subjects and careers, including call center skills, and that is being subsidized by Colombians as a public service. The government is really good at training people and it cares about knowledge.

Which verticals and trends are currently dominating the Colombian market? Do you expect that to change in time?

What I see in the short-term is that either financial or telecommunications is going to go from a typical vertical to a secondary one as it gets replaced by health. Anything to do with health will have a new strength in the market and will revamp the industry. The world is surrounded by lots of variables in the health sector and the call center industry will be affected by those changes.

In the medium-term, automation, RPA, and RDA will continue to force huge changes as agents are replaced by technology. Our challenge as entrepreneurs and business people is to replace those human resources with new ways of doing business. Robotics will play a key role in all verticals, and call centers are no exception. Automation is guaranteed to reduce the entry-level human resources in large, offshore contact centers, but in Latin America the Spanish language is a barrier to this transition.

Companies such as Nuance Communications and Verbio say they have Spanish-speaking Interactive voice responses (IVRs) or automated transactions, but the thing with Spanish is the different accents in each region. When you’re responding to an IVR and you don’t speak with a neutral accent, then machines will not understand you. It’s because of this that I don’t see automation and robotics being a replacement for human agents in the short term.

What kind of higher-value jobs can agents expect to move into if robotics will displace the lower-value roles?

In the next two or three years, there will be a huge opportunity in KPO for accountancy service, engineering, design, architecture, and telemedicine. Our labor pool in all these fields is very important and we have to migrate entry-level agents into higher-value campaigns.

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In the short-term, we see around 20% of entry-level people being laid off, unfortunately. We’ve been in business for 23 years, and have overcome all the trends that we have faced, which depends a lot of your ability to adapt to these changes. There has to be a balance between humans and technology, so humans will be there forever; nothing can yet handle a call better than a human, particularly in technical support.

The reaction to IVRs and automated services depends very much on the generation you are dealing with. If you talk to millennials or post-millennials, they don’t want to talk on the phone; they want to hit social media and get things solved that way. If you look at the demographics in Europe, for instance, it’s an old continent, so they like talking. I personally prefer talking to people, so when I get an IVR, I press zero and fast track to an agent. Some IVR options are very complex and people get lost, which is still an issue.

What specific strategies will you be using to migrate entry-level agents into higher-value positions?

If I have 100 people at entry level, I would seek out the top 30 most-skilled in all areas. I would then develop those people in different subjects that will be serviced out of the call center to the vertical. For example, if we take on a health campaign that is easy to handle, then those top 30 people would be trained in the skills to serve that campaign. If the campaign involves the supply of information, this would work very well. The health vertical is not only for health inquiries, but for health issues that are more administrative. If I had an agent that only did five semesters of computers, administration, or economics, and a health client is requiring skills in medicine or in nursing, then this would not be the right profile for migrating staff.

I’m not in this situation right now, but I foresee it and we’re imagining what best to do. The best approach would probably be to migrate depending on the skills and the campaign, but we will definitely do something because we don’t want people to lose their jobs. We have a responsibility with our people to ensure a career in Outsourcing S.A.. Every time I read about it, I think about our people.

What are you hearing from buyers in Latin America and Spain? How have their demands evolved over the years?

There are some new trends within the contact center—like customer experience and omnichannel—that all clients are now demanding because they are currently in fashion; the market creates new trends and buyers start demanding them. For example, fifteen years ago the demand was all about CRM. Today, quality has been replaced by customer experience, first contact resolution, and improved, consistent customer service through omnichannel. Add to that new technologies, better processes, talented people, and you have a far more demanding client than you would find two or three years ago. Unfortunately, even with all these new demands, clients want to pay the same price they paid two or three years ago for better services.

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