Dominican call centers cashing in on U.S. connection - 04/21/2008 - MiamiHerald.com
Dominican Republic becoming bigger player on outsourcing scene
'Did you unplug everything from the radio?'' the Dominican customer service agent asked her American client, with just the ever-slightest touch of an accent. As the Dominican Republic taps into its returning immigrant population to become the Caribbean's leader in the call center industry, few would notice her inflection. And that's the idea.
The government in Santo Domingo is offering incentives, sending thousands of young people to English immersion school and clearing out failed textile factories to make room for one of the biggest trends in telecommunications: the Caribbean. The number of agents in the Caribbean increased fivefold in six years.
''The perception that used to prevail was that the Dominican Republic was mostly a location for tourism with great beaches, a land of sugar and baseball,'' said Eddy Martínez, the Dominican Republic's secretary for exports and investments. ``The image out there was a distorted one. That image did not include the fact that we have the most sophisticated and advanced telecom infrastructure in the entire Latin America and Caribbean region.''
Four years ago, the country had just 11 call centers. Now, there are 56 and nearly 25,000 employees
who, at salaries of up to $650 a month, earn two or three times the going rate for comparable jobs. With more and more companies looking to expand in Spanish-speaking markets, Martínez said he expects to see 100,000 call center jobs in the next four years.
The government hopes to fill the posts with the thousands of students given scholarships to take nine-month English immersion courses.
The Caribbean region has about 60,000 call center jobs. The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean's industry leader.
Martínez said the top selling point for Santo Domingo is not just low labor costs or Spanish speakers, but culture. The bulk of the call center jobs are in English, and this nation of 10 million people has 1 million of its countrymen living in the United States.
''The Dominican Republic has a great cultural affinity for the United States,'' he said. ``We've grown up with cable TV, CNN and U.S. channels and movies.''
And besides, he said, ``They don't play baseball in India.''
The nation is becoming an industry leader largely because of positive reviews for quick problem-solving response times.
''You can have great government policy, low labor costs and good demographics, but at the end of the day if the service quality was low, you would not get a lot of new business,'' he said.
Roger Meier, vice president of the Caribbean Stream call center company, said the Dominican Republic represents just one of the 16 nations where Stream does business, but the company is looking for more sites.
''One of the reasons we've gone to Santo Domingo first and foremost is quality of the people,'' Meier said by phone from Costa Rica. ``The people are responsive to whatever goes on in the United States. They've lived there, traveled there and understand the U.S.''
He said just 1,500 of the company's 16,000 worldwide jobs are currently in the Dominican Republic. Another 4,500 are in the United States, which has been losing ground in the industry as companies seek lower labor and telecom rates.
Meier acknowledged the challenges of working in developing countries, such as natural disasters or energy shortages. During The Miami Herald's visit to its Santo Domingo call center, the lights at Stream went out three times.
''The power went out,'' Meier said, ``but the phones never stopped working.''