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Call centre outsourcing: It's just not an issue

Well, not if you're Swedish, it isn't...
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

Well, not if you're Swedish, it isn't...

While British companies debate the rights and wrongs of outsourcing their call centres and sweating over fears of offshore competition, it seems that one European country is quietly getting on with it without fear of backlash.

While stories of call centre agent positions dwindling seem to hit the headlines with some frequency in the UK, growth not job losses appears to be on the agenda of the Swedes, with Invest in Sweden putting the total number of call centre agents at 55,000 people – a number it is says is set to double every year until 2007.

Sweden, recognised as a high-tech trailblazer, already has a large call centre industry, worth an annual SEK3.7bn (£275m), but unlike the UK, offshore competition doesn't seem to bother the Swedes. The Swedish nearest equivalent to what some businesses perceive as the Indian call centre industry threat - that of the Baltic States - seems to be met with little more than a shrug.

While the UK call centre industry – and some call centre users – complain of language difficulties with agents in locations such as India, it's just such a language barrier that's keeping the Swedes' call centre industry firmly inside the country's borders.

And although wages in the Baltic States such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are far lower than their Swedish equivalents, it's not enough of a carrot to tempt the Scandinavians to offshore. It's not even a long-term gain, according to Berne Landgren, director at Sweden's largest mobile operator, TeliaSonera. "It could be cheaper for five years, maybe but after that, it's unlikely," he said.

Unlike tech tiger, India, the telecoms and technology in the Baltic States can't match up to broadband and telecoms frontrunner Sweden - shaving off the vital cost-savings that outsourcing-hungry companies look for.

And while the British call centre industry struggles to shake off its 'sweatshop' image, its Swedish counterpart already looks to have made the change. Unionisation, graduate jobs and a generous amount of personal space is becoming the norm.

Nevertheless, it seems call centres weren't always up to the Swedes high standards. Traditionally, new call centres are located in areas of high unemployment – given a helping hand to do so by government subsidies. While setting up a shoddy call centre in order to get your hands on the cash might have seemed an all-too-tempting prospect for fly-by-night operators, the Swedish authorities did their best to deter such a practice.

The subsidies were only offered to those companies that met certain labour standards – wages, hours, working conditions and so on – and were solely handed out to companies hiring permanent staff.

However, one threat looming over the Swedish call centre industry is lack of managers, according to Tina Walroth of the Call Centre Institute. While setting up call centres in rural areas means wage savings, it also means that call centres can lack the same skills base to draw on if they were based in the capital.

For any budding call centre managers out there – the Swedes have it covered. The Mid Sweden University offers a one year business diploma course in contact centre management with specialisations in CRM for some students.

It's not the only way that the Swedish call centre experience differs from the UK's. According a recent survey conducted by DimensionData, it found consistently across Europe that the most important factor to a user to ensure a good call centre experience was getting their query resolved first time. Consistently across Europe, that is, with the exception of the Swedes. The Scandinavians voted for good manners above all else.

Outsourcing plays a major part in the Swedish industry as a whole – around one-fifth of all call centres in the country are thought to be working in an outsourcing capacity.

That's not to say offshore outsourcing doesn't have its place in the Swedish call centre industry. But the Swedes have decided that if they want the call centre jobs from abroad, they'll take the locals too.

One such company 24Help, whose clients include providing helpdesk services to the likes of Tiscali and HP, replies to queries from customers from Finland, Denmark and Norway, has offered positions to natives of the other Scandinavian countries and thrown in Swedish courses and activities for workers to boot.

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