Colombia Is Thinking Realistically About the Future of Contact Centers

In praise of the rare BPO conference that looked to the future instead of promoting the past.

colombia

I have attended hundreds of business conferences around the world. When they are focused on promoting a region for nearshoring or business process outsourcing (BPO), I know what to expect. A government minister will open the event — clearly with no idea what they are talking about because someone else wrote their speech — and most of the presentations will be focused on telling us that this is the best country for nearshoring because they have more graduates or lower costs than anywhere else.

Thankfully, when I visited Bogotá in Colombia this week for the ACDECC (Colombian Contact Center and BPO Association), I was pleasantly surprised to find that the officials there had different ideas. My own talk was about how millennials are changing customer service channel preferences, and many other speakers were exploring how the industry is changing rather just banging the drum for Colombia.

Perhaps Colombia is just confident enough of its attractiveness to the nearshoring market? I sat on the conference sidelines with Álvaro Márquez Cadvid, the chairman of ACDECC, and asked him to explain.

I first asked Álvaro to explain some of his thoughts on the challenges facing contact centers today. “One big challenge for the contact center business is that our customers come from every industry from banks to telcos to everything else,” he said. “Can you imagine anyone now calling a contact center to ask for a taxi? When platforms like Uber become popular you can see changes happen to an entire industry within a year.”

Instead of the usual contact center industry chairman suggesting that everything is rosy, he acknowledges that in some industries there are enormous changes taking place — and fast. He picked a great example. When is the last time you phoned and ordered a taxi? What happened to all those taxi contact centers anyway?

Álvaro acknowledged a another major challenge: knowing the skills that will be needed in the near future and the way that the workforce is changing as more millennials enter senior positions.

“When we are planning for the future with the government we are not planning 25 years in the future, we are talking to them about the young people leaving education in just five years,” he said. “What should their skills be? We need to plan for this five-year window, but it is extremely difficult to determine what skills will be needed.”

He elaborated further. “Millennials are different depending on where they are from and their income. However, one real problem in our industry is getting 40-year-old managers to understand their 21-year-old employees. But what is also interesting is that many millennials are now becoming managers in companies that are choosing which contact center to hire.”

While we were together, one recent initiative came to my mind. Several Central American countries started had banded together to promote nearshoring to the region. I asked Álvaro if Colombia is involved in any similar initiatives with its neighbors. “We do share a lot of best practice and initiatives with our neighbors,” he said. “But we are not really working together — in fact in most cases we are competing with countries like Costa Rica and Panama. We do have the advantage of being a much bigger country with a bigger population and a mature industry. We are in a good place to compete with our neighbors because some of them have the wish but not the capability.”

Four years ago, Spain was the number one location for Colombia to export services in the BPO market, but the number one location is now the United States. The larger U.S. market should be good news, but there is the added difficulty of finding enough English speakers for the contact centers.

“Colombia itself is a very mature BPO market and has a lot of experience working with the U.S.A., but we do have a problem finding enough people who speak English or Portuguese,” said Álvaro. “One big issue is that those who are smart enough to speak English generally don’t feel they want to work in a contact center, unless they are a student and just doing it for a couple of years.”

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Of course the market is changing and the growth of multichannel service is making the contact center a far more exciting place to work, with genuine opportunities to progress into areas such as marketing and sales. The dead end of a job in customer service is becoming a myth as contact centers become much more about managing customer relationships.

Álvaro acknowledged this when I asked him what looks exciting for the year ahead in Colombia. “I am interested in the digital ecosystem,” he said. “Understanding the millennial consumer already using social tools and how we now manage a digital consumer. These digital consumers make the contact center much more exciting and it completely changes how the metrics need to work. It certainly has more sex appeal than the traditional contact center! To manage this kind of business, people like me need to be surrounded with young experts like my assistant.”

Álvaro also talked intelligently about how he sees IT skills becoming more important in contact centers, in particular the need to use Big Data skills so customer information can be analyzed.

This kind of insight is important because I see too many people focused on contact centers as they are today. The entire ACDECC conference in Bogotá was looking to the future and that makes a refreshing change in a world where we are usually listening to people talking of their difficulties serving customers across multiple channels, when really they should be thinking about how Virtual Reality is going to impact their business in Q4 of this year after Sony releases their $300 headsets.

Colombia may have the perennial problem of finding enough English speakers to work in contact centers, but at least they are thinking ahead. I can’t remember attending a BPO conference this big that focused almost entirely on defining a future state for the industry. I hope it pays off.

Please leave your thoughts on the Colombia approach here or get in touch with me via Twitter on @markhillary

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