By Patrick Haller
San Andres, Colombia is a top vacation spot for Colombians and foreigners from around the world. Long-known for its relaxed vibe, coral reefs, snorkeling and similarities to Jamaica (including a vibrant Rasta culture and worshipful love of Bob Marley), it is perhaps one of the last places one would think of to open a contact center. Yet, that is exactly what Barranquilla, Colombia-based Transcom did a year ago.
So, what happens when the high-demands of a 21st century call center are put on the shoulders of a culture that is more familiar with sandals and sunshine than service-levels and client “sat”?
Although English is the first language for the majority of the native population, the creole accent sounds like a sharper version of their Jamaican ancestors, which can make comprehension a bit challenging. Despite the fact that the national vocational training institute, SENA, has established call center training and English classes there, and a new $27 million dollar fiber-optic cable connects the island to mainland Colombia, the 22 square mile island of under 100,000 residents, San Andres is very much in a class by itself as it warms up as a niche destination in Latin America outsourcing.
Transcom started a pilot program wherein they hired people from San Andres to work in their Barranquilla office but they soon realized that there was an untapped opportunity on the island and decided to open a center there. The company took a risk and retrofitted existing office space into a 110-seat call center operation to service a transportation client in the US and Canada.
Since the population is dependent mainly on the tourism trade, which is affected many factors such as economics, island-wide illness and perceived security issues, the unemployment rate on San Andres is higher than in mainland Colombia. But this fact didn’t make the recruitment process, or establishment of a new work culture, any easier. Since the center operates 22 hours non-stop, one of the main challenges Transcom encountered was finding people to work the 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. shift. Or to start the day at 4:30 a.m.
Alone on the Island
“We have the only call center on the island, so we are implementing a new culture,” says Lelio Sotomonte, CEO of Transcom. Prospective agents are attracted to the regular employment, fair pay, a career track and a comfortable work environment. The agents also have the chance to interact with other cultures and to improve their English. “I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but we had to make them understand what a call center is,” Sotomonte recounts. San Andres boasts a population of about 60,000 residents and to the surprise of many, sits far closer to Nicaragua’s east coast than it does to Colombia. (Territorial disputes continue today in fact between the two countries regarding Caribbean possessions.)
Instead of just hiring anyone they could, Transcom was –and is– selective about the people they consider. Chief among the qualifications they look for are computer skills, a good work ethic and strong English capabilities. The company currently employs 90 people on San Andres, with the intention of filling all 110 seats. Instead of casting a wide net, Transcom now relies mostly on referrals from existing employees for qualified candidates. Initially, Transcom sent supervisors from their Barranquilla operation to San Andres for four months to help get the operation up and running, and to identify which agents had what it takes to be a good supervisor. Now, all supervisors are chosen from the existing agent’s pool and overall retention is good, according to Sotomonte.
Sotomonte reports that Transcom is considering testing out collections and sales service in order to gauge if the staff can manage multiple campaigns, and eventually add more customers.
Although Sotomonte is optimistic that San Andres can support other small-level call centers, Transcom is the only one currently operating there and investing time, energy and money in order to make their venture a success.
Nearshore Americas made repeated attempts to contact the correct person in charge of the call center training at SENA but there appeared to be some internal confusion as to who that was. Therefore, we are unable to report on the program specifics at this time.