BPO in Central America is big business, with every country throwing their hat into the ring. But, following an on-the-ground visit, it’s clear that Nicaragua lives and breathes the industry, and it’s impacting the whole country.
Around two years ago, Nicaragua took a hit in US perception following the expulsion of three US officials from the country and a subsequent travel warning. This was a relatively small black mark, but negatively impacted how many view the country in the States.
The truth is, the country is safe, greatly aligned with the US market, and has pioneered some impactful things for BPO in recent years, so definitely deserved an objective look.
Here’s a detailed account of some observations and experiences during the trip.
Arriving in Managua
April 1, 12:45 PM (EDT): This place is hot. During the day, the temperature hits between 86 and 95 degrees, the air is not too dry thanks to nearby Managua Lake, and there is usually a relatively strong wind whistling around – pack light and dress lighter. A shirt is comfortable, but ties and jackets are overkill out here.
The airport is pretty small – which is to be expected for a city of 1 million people – and there can be delays at the immigration. I had to wait in line for an hour as the border guard manually input information from visitor passports and travel documents. Without any extra baggage to collect, you’ll breeze right through, but the baggage claim room looked pretty well-organized too.
Essential Tip: Make sure you have a US$10 bill for the “tourist card” when you arrive, or you’ll have to use the ATM to draw it out, which charges US$1.50 on top of your usual bank fees.
April 1, 14:20 PM (EDT): After a short 35 minute drive, Francis Icabalceta from ProNicaragua, a fantastic host for the whole trip, dropped me off at the Holiday Inn Express Managua, which is reasonably priced between US$80 and US$100 per night, offers comfortable rooms with air con, and includes a modest choice of fruit, juices, baked goods, beans, and eggs for breakfast. There is also a pool and a fitness room to burn off those croissants.
Something that stuck out immediately is how happy and friendly all the staff were – the reception workers, maids, cleaners, and even the security guards all had a genuine smile on their face. It doesn’t feel forced or counterfeit; people show real warmth to visitors.
Easy Sunday in Granada
April 1, 15:00 PM (EDT): After getting settled in, Francis and her husband collected me from the hotel and we headed off to Granada, a beautiful colonial town located around 45 minutes southeast of Managua on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, and 100% worth a visit.
We enjoyed some grilled steak and Toña, a popular national lager, at restaurant El Zaguán, which was a little overpriced and full of tourists, but knows how to cook its meat and provides fantastic service.
Quick Observation: Around 90% of the people you’ll meet in customer service will have impeccable English, from waiters and hotel staff, to agents and directors – the accent is almost indistinguishable from a native US English speaker. Sometimes their comprehension is a little off, but it probably didn’t help that this editor has a British accent.
Following that, we grabbed a coffee at Café Las Flores, one of the country’s popular national coffee brands, and took a walk around the modest main square, where people had gathered to play some local music, dance, and just unwind on a lazy Sunday.
April 1, 19:00 PM (EDT): There was barely any traffic on the drive back to Managua, so we decided to stop at the Masaya Volcano National Park, which was a massive highlight of the visit. The park gives visitors a chance to peer into the crater of an angry, active volcano, providing a glimpse of an intimidating lake of molten lava, as it swirls and heaves in a mesmerizing, fiery dance — a rare phenomenon on Earth as the molten rocks often cools and solidifies within weeks.
Advice for visitors: Expect a wait of around two hours to get into the park. The first hour is all queuing, then you get a chance to visit a museum inside, which has drinks and bathrooms too. After that, expect another long wait before you being given access to the top of the volcano.
Despite the long wait to get in, this experience is not to be missed.
An Introduction to Nicaragua
April 2, 10:45 AM (EDT): A short drive around the corner from the hotel took us to ProNicaragua’s office for an introductory presentation on the country and on the state of BPO. The agency has done a good job of collecting data from local companies through a series of annual surveys, with 42 of 49 companies participating in their 2016 study – the 2017 data is being prepared for release in the next few months.
The agency’s investment promotion manager for the services industry, Maria Margarita Espinosa, and its executive director, Carlos Zarruk Castillo, are both very knowledgeable about how the industry is operating, and it’s obvious from discussing it with these representatives that the country sees the importance of the sector’s impact on economic growth.
April 2, 12:30 PM (EDT): The first corporate meeting was with Manuel Díaz, Site Director at OneLink, which is serving six US clients, one of which is a tech company in the health and fitness space. The company has 1,450 seats and 1,300 agents, 1,000 of which are fully bilingual.
OneLink’s facility boasts loads of staff amenities centered on fitness, such as a running track surrounding the desks, exercise bikes dotted around, a multi-sports area for basketball and football, and even a ball-launching machine for baseball, as well as a games room, a coffee shop modeled after local brands, a small cinema, and a chilling out space – all important attrition killers.
April 2, 14:30 PM (EDT): We then met with Alejandra Medina Cordua, Site Director at SPi CRM, and a previous employee of ProNicaragua. Alejandra pointed out that, despite high ability with those who do speak English, there is a pool of highly educated, under-employed people that don’t have the right level of the language to join the sector – a direct result of academia not supporting it strongly enough.
Furthermore, industry players are not yet dong enough to create a chamber or association for the sector, which is leading to a much more competitive ecosystem as companies continue to ramp. Every company seems to have a desire for this, but no-one is stepping up yet to take responsibility for it.
BPO Prominence and the Caribbean Attraction
April 3, 10:00 AM (EDT): Around the city, there are numerous signs and advertisements aimed at BPO recruitment, and spotting various BPO facilities and logos. The city is pretty small, but BPO is clearly a prominent presence here, and both the government and the settled companies appear to be betting big on its continued growth.
Sitel, the largest employer in the country with 2,866 workers, and the longest-tenured BPO player since launching in 2008, is one of those prominent figures around the city.
April 3, 10:30 AM (EDT): Val VanDegrift, Country Manager & VP Shared Services at Sitel, also echoed the challenge of an under-employed labour pool, as well as occasional wide swings in the dollar advantage impacting prices – Nicaragua widely accepts US dollars and companies also pay in dollars, but operational costs can fluctuate when the US exchange rate disfavors the local córdoba.
According to VanDegrift, Sitel’s Nicaragua operations have become a hub for the company’s social media and human resources in the Americas, as well as housing managers and supervisors for work-at-home agents in the US, which shows confidence in the Nicaraguan workforce.
Two resonating themes are a growing Caribbean workforce and an influx of people returning home to Nicaragua from the US. There are not yet any hard statistics or data for those returning home, but OneLink and Sitel reported that 10% and 25%, respectively, of their workforce is from the Caribbean coast, where Creole English is the common language.
April 3, 13:00 PM (EDT): Ibex, on the other hand, said that 35% to 38% of its 640-strong workforce was from the Caribbean, so is leading the charge in attracting those workers, who often relocate to Managua just to find work in the sector.
The company’s offices were a hive of activity, with a fresh recruitment drive pulling in dozens of applicants. Henry Ordoñez, Ibex Country Manager, highlighted that because of the country’s young workforce – 76.1% are under 39 years old – there is a risk that traditional training can be off-putting, and the new generations need hands-on experience with systems and calls to drive better engagement (Henry himself is a Sitel prodigy, joining the company eight years ago and climbing the ladder).
This approach is starting to be applied across the board, with some companies even pioneering new ways to train the next generation of managers and supervisors – we will be covering this innovation in detail in a follow-up article later this month.
April 4, 12:30 PM (EDT): During the last meeting of the week, a pattern became clear: there is a generation of young directors rising from the first agents to join the industry when Sitel arrived. Carlos Medina, Country Manager for Opticall, like Henry, is another Sitel prodigy – mentored by both Val VanDegrift and Manuel Díaz – rising from the agent level to CM in just six years. The two young managers saw Sitel as “a perfect school for the new generation of BPO directors”, enabling local talent to outpace and drive out expats.
Opticall is also doing some next-level work with telemedicine, training customer service agents to become refractionists – the guys who check your eyesight at an opticians and determine your prescription. These refractionists are consulting with US patients over video calls and even controlling the eye-test machinery remotely with IoT technology. With 78 people in the company doing this, the team is fairly sizable for telemedicine, and is reportedly the only one of its kind in Central America.
All in all, the experience in Nicaragua was a positive one, and it’s clear that the BPO industry is attractive to the workforce, high-performing, and fast becoming part of the culture. The country is safe, the people are warm and friendly, and the language skills with those who speak English are at one of the highest levels in Nearshore.
Once certain bottlenecks in education are addressed, the country will be able to rely on a larger labor pool that is deeply connected to US culture and language. Customer service is an obvious strength, but more technical skills will need to be developed to offer higher value services.
If you were on the fence about visiting Nicaragua for BPO scouting or just travel, it’s highly recommend you do. Whether you have pre-conceived notions of the country, or go in blind with no expectations, prepare to be impressed by what is happening there.