U.S. call centres contact Canada for work

A more favourable exchange rate and the development of advanced telephony equipment will make Canada the ideal location for North America’s call centres, according to a report that forecasts a gain of more than 90,000 jobs here within four years.

According to The Virtual Guide to Contact

Centers, released by New York-based research firm Datamonitor on Friday, the United States will lose about 3,000 call centres and some 133,000 agent positions by 2008. A good proportion of the contracts will be oustourced to Canada, the report says, considerably boosting the approximately 4,500 call centres in the country today. Right now, Datamonitor says, Canada employs some 212,000 call centre agents.

Mark Best, who authored the report, said Canada will benefit from the U.S.’s loss in part because of the exchange rate as well as slightly lower wages for agents here. There is also the impact of technologies that allow callers to resolve their call automatically, he said, such as address changes or balance inquiries, which are improving productivity and reducing the need for more labour.

“”It’s going to be more advanced routing technologies, IVR and then speech (recognition) as well,”” he said.

Skills-based routing, in which calls are automatically sent to an agent with particular expertise, and interactive voice-response (IVR) have been evolving for the past 15 years, said Elizabeth Winter, founder of the Contact Professionals Alliance (CPA) based in Toronto.

“”It’s nothing new. However, the cost for it has come down,”” she said. “”The same economies of scale that are there (in the U.S.) are here (in Canada). If a call centre there can afford it, a call centre here can afford it.””

Lawrence Byrd, communications applications director at Avaya, said Datamonitor’s report reflects an increased need to improve customer satisfaction and dramatically lower cost through the introduction of IP telephony. This gives call centres the ability to extend their reach to agents working from home or to locations in Canada.

“”There is really becoming a sort of global routing decision that gets made,”” he said. “”That increases the need of routing technology to make decisions, and also self-service technology on the front end, to know who the customer is and maybe help them without having any agent talk to them.””

Winter said there was no guarantee the nearshore trend would lead to increased IT investments.

“”If we had this influx of business from the U.S., would that encourage people to go to skills-based routing? I’m not sure,”” she said. “”I’m sure the technology companies would like me to say yes, but I don’t see that that’s a natural result.””

Technology and call centre industry groups have often touted Canada as a “”nearshore”” place to transfer jobs that are sometimes outsourced to offshore destinations like India or the Philippines. Best, however, said much of the growth in Canada’s call centre industry will be organic, particularly in smaller municipalities in British Columbia or the east coast.

“”In the tier one cities — meaning Toronto, but maybe even Hamilton or Montreal — we do see a little bit of saturation,”” he said. “”Wages tend to inflate there.””

The other primary attraction to the Canadian market is that the profile of the call centre agent is extremely similar to that of an American agent, Best said, and the jobs are often considered a boon in areas suffering from poor economic conditions.

“”You start to get older labourers who don’t want to move, but they have to work,”” he said. “”Instead of having someone 22 years old who’s going to use that job as maybe a part-time or transitional job, if you have a slightly older work force, they tend to be a little more stable and you get lower turnover.””

Despite Datamonitor’s projections, Canada’s call centre industry has recently been speaking out against proposed legislation in the United States that would curb the degree of offshore outsourcing of call centre jobs. There are about 100 pieces of legislation in 36 states that address the issues, according to the CPA.

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