BOGOTA, Colombia – The Unisono call center is located in the Colombian capital of Bogota. But you wouldn’t know it walking past the rows of youthful operators equipped with headsets and computer monitors.
Chilean flags fly in one wing of the sprawling office while the red-white-and-green national colors of Mexico dominate another section. The decorations set the mood and help Unisono employees get in synch with their customers and clients from around Latin America.
It’s a nice touch, one that’s helped the Spanish company Unisono make its mark here in Colombia. The company plans to upgrade its Bogota call center and double the number of employees from 320 to 640 by the end of the year, according to Ana Isabel Iglesias, an Unisono development consultant.
Like Unisono, call centers in Colombia are undergoing a rapid transition. The first call center opened here in the mid-1990s but now more than 30 have set up operations. Most are located in Bogota but firms have set up operations in Barranquilla, Cali, Ibague, Manizales and other cities.
Some of the largest include Multienlace, Atento, Contact Center Americas, and Sitel. All told, they employ 70,000 people. Last year, they invoiced more than $500 million in sales, says Ana Karina Quessep, executive director of the Colombian Association of Contact Centers and BPO.
“We’re becoming a world-class destination for call centers,” said Quessep, who is organizing the 7th Andean Congress of Call and Contact Centers which will be held in Bogota from May 19-21.
Due to its size, Brazil remains Latin America’s largest player in the call center business followed Mexico and Argentina. But Colombia has become an attractive location due, in part, to the way people here speak Spanish.
The Colombian accent, especially in Bogota, is widely considered the most neutral. And that makes a huge difference when fielding calls from all over the Spanish-speaking world.
“It’s a key factor,” says Iglesias. “When you’re selling something you need to be understood and to form friendships over the phone. So you want a neutral accent.”
Besides language, the security situation has improved. The murder rate has fallen while last year the country registered fewer than 200 kidnappings, down from more than 3,000 a decade ago.
Other advantages include the minimum wage, which is low compared to other Latin American nations and nearly makes Colombia competitive with India, the world leader in call centers.
Some call centers have gained tax advantages by setting up in one of Colombia’s 55 free zones. In addition, Colombia’s judicial security is viewed as a strongpoint while the country is home to a vast, underemployed population of university students who make up most of the bulk of call center employees.
Proexport Colombia, which promotes exports and foreign investment, predicts that by 2012 Colombian call centers could generate 156,000 jobs and $2 billion in sales.
But for that to happen, call centers here will have to focus on offshore operations, says Jorge Enrique Cote, general manager of Contact Center Americas – which employs 4,500 people at four call centers in Bogota and Cali.
For now, about 87 percent of the business is connected to Colombian companies, like AeroRepubica or Comcel, while just 13 percent deals with international firms.
“Most Colombian companies are taken care of,” Cote says. “We’re going to have to work more with the international market.”