A lack of investment incentives, competition for workers, rising unions in Chile, and legislation in Brazil are concerns as Sitel Worldwide looks for opportunities to continue expanding its Latin American operations. In a conversation with Nearshore Americas, Don Berryman, General Manager of Americas for Sitel since 2010, sounded optimistic about his Latin American workforce and Sitel’s commitment to the region. But Berryman also acknowledged factors they keep a close eye on, including labor laws in Brazil.
Nearshore Americas: Sitel has locations in five Central/South American countries. What do you consider when assessing a country?
Berryman: The single-most important element is the employable workforce. That they are smart and we will be able to have long-lasting relationships with them, at a level that will support at least a 500-seat call center with the capacity for somewhere around 1,000 employees with the capability to grow. We assess the infrastructure, stability of government, the ease to get in and out of the country.
NSAM: What skills are you looking for?
Berryman: We train our employees on what they need to do, but they need to be able to think well, handle client situations, work on computers, good typing, have good comprehension skills, or a certain skill set like technical abilities.
NSAM: How important are English-language skills to your operations?
Berryman: Bilingualism is important in some markets, in Nicaragua where most of our solutions are for English-speaking clients. We went into Colombia to support our Spanish offshore clients and we found that we could service a number of North American clients from there. We now have over 600 bilingual employees in Colombia. In Chile we only support Spanish clients.
NSAM: How do you determine if it’s the right time to expand in a country, or to open operations in a new country?
Berryman: We are constantly looking at expansion and have significant growth in Latin America. We constantly evaluate the markets. Our facilities group is constantly talking to governments to find out where the employable populations are. We haven’t left any countries yet. The things that would cause us to leave include unfavorable changes in the tax structure, changes in labor relations in terms of how we pay employees or how they are represented in terms of labor unions. Competition would also make it difficult. Costa Rica I think is very competitive so we wouldn’t want to go into a country where we are competing for the same resources. Most Latin American countries have limited resources, as opposed to call centers in India and the Philippines.
NSAM: Which countries provide a notably favorable operating climate?
Berryman: Nicaragua and Colombia are outstanding, Chile is a little different because of the tax structure and cost of doing business – labor has grown. A number of our competitors have moved to Peru. We are mostly serving domestic clients in Chile. In Panama we have about 4,400 employees. It is very competitive with a low unemployment rate. I don’t think we will add any more call centers in Panama.
NSAM: What is it about Nicaragua and Colombia that you like?
Berryman: The workforce in Managua is very good and all of our clients love the agents. The education level is high and the capability is strong. We have grown from 1,600 to 2,500 employees in the last 12 months. Nicaragua won our President’s Award, meaning they are our highest-performing center in Latin America. Bogota won one of our Mean More Awards in the first half of the year. In Bogota there is a good workforce, skills, and a lot of people. I don’t think we will run out of quality people there. The English-speaking market is very happy; it is a potential alternative to the Philippines.
NSAM: Are operating costs attractive?
Berryman: Definitely in those two markets it is very good. Things like rent, telecom are very good. The infrastructure in Bogota is very good and the mass transit system, Transmilenio, is great for our employees.
NSAM: Does Sitel have plans to further expand in Latin America?
Berryman: Latin America is one of the fastest areas we plan to expand in. Our plan is to at least build another call center in Colombia. We are looking at plans in Managua, and looking into Peru, but we have no plans to go there yet, and some others like Honduras. Brazil has doubled in the last 12 months. That’s been a great market for us.
NSAM: Do you have any concerns about how business-friendly the new Brazilian government of President Dilma Rousseff is?
Berryman: The current government is really an expansion of the prior government – she was in the Lula administration. Legislation has been passed that is much more supportive of the workforce. For example, the employers have to pay an additional transport fee if the employee lives a certain number of miles away. Legislation like that doesn’t always have a positive impact. We are watching it very closely. The Brazilian market is growing dramatically and we have to support our clients there.
NSAM: Which Nearshore countries offer the most favorable incentives and investment climate?
Berryman: None really offer many incentives to come into the country. Nicaragua made it very easy to get established. We have been in Brazil for a long time. Colombia has a good business environment. Chile – if anything – has become a little bit more difficult over time. The strength of the labor unions makes it a little difficult. But the employment and people there are really strong. We continually work with the government to work through these things. We certainly get assistance from universities to get specific skill sets, phone training, reviewing computer screens and typing at the same time – there are some advance courses in some countries, like Nicaragua.
NSAM: What type of training does Sitel provide?
Berryman: A couple of days of training on Sitel specifics such as what we expect, policies and procedures, then the training is specific to the customer needs.
NSAM: What are some of the keys to building successful teams?
Berryman: It really is to make them feel part of the larger and broader company. A couple of things we do around our clients in the call centers like decorating and painting it, they compete against each other for awards, we have a lot of team events. Once a month there is a meal or cookout where we celebrate achievements. We hold calls every other week so that teams at different call centers can exchange ideas on things like how they are winning, and what they are doing in the communities; this is something they really enjoy.
NSAM: Do you find there is a difference in the team concept between North and South America, and between countries?
Berryman: I don’t think there is anything in terms of difficulty. There is a strong desire in Latin America to be part of a team. We have a really high attendance at global town hall meetings, or bi-weekly regional meetings. We have clients visiting our sites all the time and constantly get great feedback about how involved, how bright, how much the agents know about the clients programs. The clients are constantly surprised. This is a real positive for Latin America, whereas agents in some countries, like the Philippines, are a little more tentative and nervous around a client. This is not the case in Latin America, they love the attention and the client involvement.
NSAM: How involved is Sitel with the local communities?
Berryman: Very involved. In every country we have investment that we make in the local charities and we help out the people. Every center has a group that does volunteer work. That is part of our strategy and the culture and environment that we want. We are not only there to hire people, but we want to be involved. A number of our clients contribute funds and their employee’s time to local charities and volunteer work.