China to rival India in contact centers

Its growing English-speaking workforce makes mainland China a formidable location for contact center outsourcing, say senior Aspect Software executives.

SINGAPORE--China has what it takes to compete with India for a piece of the lucrative global contact center outsourcing market, particularly if it builds up a larger English-speaking workforce.

Steve Michaud, director of solutions marketing for Asia-Pacific at Aspect Software, told ZDNet Asia in an interview that for China to be on par with India, its workforce will have to sharpen their English language skills.

"I don't think that their English proficiency is where India's is yet…but I think they have enough English skills for the market that they are serving now," he said.

Michaud added that it will not be long before China catches up with India as English is being taught in schools today. "Everyone in school today is learning English, so three [to] four years from now, watch out India, because China will have enough school kids reaching between 18 and 20 years old, who are going to be able to work in the call centers," he said.

Siva Subramaniam, vice president for Asean, Korea and South Pacific at Aspect Software, said China today is able to cater to the bulk of the Asian market, including Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, because of its Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean language capabilities.

Japanese and Korean companies currently outsource their contact center operations to Dalian, where there is a ready pool of contact center workers skilled in Korean and Japanese languages. Hong Kong companies show a preference for Guangdong province, where workers speak Cantonese, while Taiwanese companies turn to Guangdong or Fujian where workers speak Hokkien, said Subramaniam.

He added that China is forecasted to have a pool of call center agents "around the same size" as India's by 2010 or 2012. "And it won't be just [for the] English [speaking market]," said Michaud, adding that the pool of workers will also cater to "a whole diversity of local languages, plus English".

Michaud noted China's strength, which lies not only in its people, but also in its infrastructure which surpasses India. "When you look at China from an infrastructure standpoint, it beats India in every measure I can think of, [including] infrastructure such as airports and roads.

"It should be a formidable competitor as it gets bigger," he added.

Video communications
Companies in the Asia-Pacific region are also looking to use video-based tools to communicate with customers in the contact center environment, said Michaud. "A year ago, we didn't hear anything about video, [but] now people are requesting [that] products be video-enabled or 3G-enabled for providing video."

He noted that there have only been a few implementations of video-based tools in Japan and Korea, where telcos are using these tools as a marketing strategy to sell 3G video-based services.

While video as a channel of communication will take off over time, Michaud said, video-based tools still have a "long road" ahead before it can be ubiquitous across the industry, like voice-based tools have become. Issues with video, such as privacy concerns and the loss of anonymity, will also need to be resolved first, before these tools are adopted in contact centers, he added.