The call centre industry may not be close to its target of 500 000 jobs by 2009, but it has grown, become more mature and today offers better services to a business market that is increasingly customer-centric and service oriented.

Assisted by technological advances, better management tools and the local economic upturn, large contact centres have expanded and a number of smaller contact centres have been established. Ironically, however, the biggest driver at present is the economic downturn.
According to a 2006 Datamonitor study, he number of call centres in South Africa grew at 12,2% from 584 in 2004 to 761 in 2006 and are expected to reach just over a 1 000 by 2009.
Agent positions in South Africa grew at 10,6% from 44 600 in 2004 to 56 000 in 2006, and are expected to reach numbers of 68 500 by 2008. The majority of agents are employed in contact centres serving the financial, communications and public sector sectors.
The proportion of agents working in operations where the call centre technology is hosted (versus premises-based) is growing. In 2006, the ratio was 97,4% to 2,6% (hosted). While hosted services operations remain small, only expected to house 8% of the total number of agents in 2009, it's a segment that is growing by almost 63% per annum.
Paul Fick, CEO of Spescom DataFusion, comments: "The most telling sign of growth is that the number of seats and the complexity of the offerings of bigger contact centres are expanding. This is being driven by demand from businesses for enhanced customer contact solutions, ranging from claims processing and standard customer service and support, to outbound marketing, customer satisfaction reviews and the current requirement for the automation of debt collection."
Viv Crone, chief technology officer of Spescom, agrees, pointing to the factors that are driving demand for call centre services. "The economic situation in South Africa is making cost containment and the achievement of greater business efficiencies vital.
"Call centres are the enablers of improved customer interactions, efficient resolution of problems and queries and freeing up key staff to focus on core responsibilities. For the consumer, on the other hand, the IP technologies that are becoming more mainstream make time and expense savings a reality.
How efficiently and successfully customers and potential new customers are serviced by contact centre staff is affected by two main factors, he says:
* The technology platforms enabling these services, and
* The ability of contact centres to leverage the benefits that come with maturity, namely increased management expertise, which includes the selection, training and management of suitable staff.
Contact centre knowledge and expertise in South Africa has grown to a level where we can comfortably call ourselves 'world class', says Fick. However, there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome if we are to be considered an outsourced contact centre destination of choice, he suggests.
"While growth within this market is expected to continue at its present rate locally, a number of realities need to be confronted if we are to expand our client base to the international arena. Chief among these is the cost of connectivity, creating a suitable basket of incentives to attract more business, and continuing to build our resources pool."
Government has been proactive in terms of making available start up and skills development incentives for the contact centre industry, which assists to establish new players and resolve the issue of resource shortages.
However, if South Africa is to compete with other countries and destinations that are focussed on growing their outsourced contact centre services sector, it should consider further bolstering the local industry with additional benefits, such as tax incentives and lowered call costs – inducements that put money in the pocket of the operator.
"The other issue we must overcome in the near future if we are to be globally competitive is the availability and price of connectivity. Bandwidth is still too expensive in South Africa and negatively impacts the attractiveness of the pricing our contact centres can offer international customers," says Fick.
"Given the current economic climate, business is expected to be tough for the next few years. Self help solutions and high levels of service are two important methods of increasing customer loyalty and improving customer relations. Contact centre services are thus expected to become a more important part of an organisation's strategy.
"With the right functionality, good management and effective monitoring, contact centres are proven to deliver considerable value."