A small, often overlooked nation situated in South America, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in the continent, making it an interesting – if not offbeat – destination. Global BPO provider Qualfon, which can claim responsibility for putting Guyana on the outsourcing map, has ambitious plans to leverage the nation’s potential, including the construction of an enormous call center campus to accommodate over 6,000 new employees.
Having just visited Guyana, Michael DeSalles, Frost & Sullivan’s principal analyst in customer care, explained to Nearshore Americas why he believes the country provides buyers of BPO services with a fresh alternative to the traditional destinations in the Nearshore.
Nearshore Americas: You’ve recently returned from Guyana. How did it compare to other nearshore destinations that you’ve visited?
Michael DeSalles: The first the biggest difference is that English is spoken as the official and primary language. Guyana was a former British colony and culturally, I think it is more like a Caribbean nation. Guyana is part of CARICOM, which is the trade union for 15 Caribbean countries. This body is headquartered in Georgetown, Guyana. The country is also heavily influenced by the United States because the Guyanese people watch American TV programming and know American products, while the United States is its biggest trading partner. The advantage of an English-speaking population for the contact center industry is that it makes contact centers scalable. Agents in Guyana can really relate to American customers. Another interesting difference is Guyana’s cultural diversity. The largest portion of the population is of East Indian descent, followed by African and then Amerindian, which is the native population that still mostly lives in the interior of the country.
NSAM: Were you impressed by the local talent? Did most people you encountered speak both English and Spanish fluently?
DeSalles: Qualfon, a BPO company that is the country’s largest private employer, gave us open access to their operations, management team, and customer service agents. While there I plugged into live customer service calls and then had a private focus group meeting with agents. As a previous call center team leader and manager, I was very impressed with their customer service skills. The English is very neutral, and there was no apparent language or cultural barrier that I could detect. I speak Spanish. However, given its proximity to Spanish-speaking countries, I was disappointed that almost no one spoke Spanish. Spanish scalability in Guyana would be very limited in my opinion.
Our research shows that the country has a literacy rate of 90.1%, which is one of the highest in all of Latin America. When we spoke with Mr. Singh, the Minister of Finance, he told us about the efforts Guyana has made at offering universal primary education and that they are getting close to offering universal secondary education.
NSAM: From what you’ve seen, what would you say are Guyana’s greatest strengths as a nearshore destination?
DeSalles: The greatest strength for any successful contact center operation is people. The same is true for Guyana. I have stated in the past that Guyana is one of the best kept secrets as a nearshore destination. I said that because it has a very attractive quality and cost advantage over other countries. The quality comes from the abundance of an educated, English-speaking workforce that promotes scalability and cultural affinity for the U.S. customers while providing a nearshore location at a price point that is very competitive with offshore locations like India and the Philippines.
NSAM: And what are Guyana’s biggest liabilities? In what areas do they need to improve?
DeSalles: I would say that probably the biggest liability for Guyana is that it is relatively unknown as an outsourcing destination by U.S. companies. Many people mistake it for Ghana and believe it is in Africa rather than in South America. With the unknown, comes uncertainty. Guyana needs to improve its global visibility and image. Many people have no idea that Guyana is a former British colony that is now independent with a stable democratic government and strong ties to the United States. I emphasize political stability, given the recent events in neighboring Venezuela. It has had the same elected party in place since 1992. It is also one of the strongest and most stable economies in Latin America with a sustained 4.5% GDP growth over the last decade.
Telecommunications is another area where improvements are needed. Guyana is still a developing country, and it is working to improve its infrastructure. Its local telecommunications provider, GT&T, is owned by a United States company, ATN, and has invested heavily in telecommunication infrastructure of the country. This includes fiber over land and undersea. However, the telecomm industry does not have competition and prices are not very negotiable. The Government of Guyana and GT&T are currently in negotiations to open the communication market.
As for technology talent, based on observations during my visit, I would suggest that Guyana’s population is less prepared to handle technical support calls than other nearshore countries like Mexico, Panama or Costa Rica.
Finally, there are some shortcomings in terms of infrastructure. There are few existing buildings in the country that can be converted to handle contact center operations. This is true in terms of square footage and high-speed connectivity. I would say that this is a major reason why Qualfon has invested in building its own new center and contact center campus. I also feel that the country needs to improve the quality of its road network in order to reduce travel time and transport costs.
NSAM: Who are the other main players in Guyana’s BPO sector? Did you visit the facilities of any other companies?
DeSalles: While Qualfon is the only major BPO provider in Guyana, there are a few smaller BPOs. I interviewed a local BPO executive from a company called Clear Connect. The company has about 200 agents, but I did not visit their facilities. Most of the other BPOs are relatively small and often have niche expertise.
As mentioned earlier, I also spoke with representatives from Go-Invest, which is the promotion investment organization for Guyana that helps develop foreign and domestic investment. They mentioned that they are in discussions with several other large BPO providers. This is not a surprise and we should expect to see other larger global BPOs starting to invest in operations in Guyana.
NSAM: What would you consider the biggest or most overlooked opportunities in Guyana?
DeSalles: I think Guyana has a great opportunity to be an alternative to India or a complement to the Philippines for buyers of BPOs services. Some companies are pulling out of India, and Guyana offers similar price points with the advantages of a near shore location with outstanding English skills and a terrific cultural affinity for the U.S. customer. In addition, many companies already have vast operations in the Philippines, but now they are looking to diversify their geographies and need a location with scalability, outstanding English skills, and a good price point below the Philippines. I believe Guyana can provide that for these companies. One other little known fact: Guyana is outside of hurricane zones.
NSAM: What are the costs like in terms of wages, rent, etc. compared to other nearshore destinations?
DeSalles: Agent wages (price per minute) are considerably lower than other Latin American countries, and one major reason for that is you do not have to pay a premium for bilingual employees. Telecommunications costs appear to be higher. My observations are that rent is lower, but there is a scarcity of built-out real estate at this time. Overall, the costs (on a pretty conservative scale) are probably 10% to 30% lower than other Latin American locations.