Bucking national trend, South Florida call centers thrive
By Tom Harlan
South Florida call centers are adding employees and expanding facilities, countering the trend of a domestic industry slowdown.
Companies like Data Monitor, Frost and Sullivan and IDC, which track call-center activity, are reporting a flat or shrinking trend to the US contact-center market and strong growth offshore, said Kenneth M. Epstein, managing partner of call-center consultant C3.
"This growth is driven by a commodity mentality," he said. "Economics have in many cases forced corporations to look for any and every measure to cut costs."
But Precision Response Corp., a Fort Lauderdale customer-service company that employs about 5,000 and has locations in Kendall, Cutler Ridge, North Miami and Opa-locka, is recruiting for several hundred positions in North Dade and Cutler Ridge, said Alicia Mivares, vice president of marketing and communications.
Road America, a call center that leased 23,000 feet at America Corporate Center in West Dade in October, is expanding in Georgia, said CB Richard Ellis broker Susan Thomas. Home Service, a UK company, is opening a call center in South Florida.
"Call centers are coming back to the US," Ms. Thomas said, adding that CB Richard Ellis' national call-center group has been reporting the trend.
"There is an interesting word - repatriatization," said Gary Szasz of call-center consultant CAM Squared, which is helping IRT of Fort Lauderdale open a new call center. "There are cultural issues in dealing with other countries."
Many US companies that have been offshore, including Dell and Delta Airlines, have moved a large portion of their operations back to the US, he said, because their customers had urgent demands to fix their computers and buy tickets and felt more comfortable communicating with Americans.
"Customer satisfaction was going down in every area but help desk," he said. "The decrease in customer satisfaction levels was no longer worth the cost savings in people's minds."
And costs on the labor and facility side were sometimes minor, Mr. Szasz said, because some US companies had to send executives and workers to visit and live abroad.
"The cost-benefit ratio turned out to be a lot different than anticipated," he said, and companies didn't want to risk losing customers for minor financial gains.
"It's important to remember that all contact center work is not created equal," Mr. Epstein said. Certain types of work are well suited for select offshore markets, he said, while others are more effective if managed in the US.
"For high-quality inbound customer service in English, companies seem to prefer to have their high-value customers' inquiries handled in the US," he said.
Customer groups like Baby Boomers are more concerned about service than money when dealing with health issues, said Joseph Pores, CEO of Health Care Answering Services/Call For Health in Boca Raton, which has 70% of its current client base in Florida and 30% throughout the US.
"They are more financially viable, and from a health care standpoint, will go to whoever gives them the best service," he said.
PRC, which represents DIRECTV, American Express, Expedia and AARP, has found that many of its clients find offshore markets attractive, Ms. Mivares said, but there is continued demand for domestic services.
South Florida markets offer solid labor markets, she said, and access to public transportation.
"Although we have no immediate plans to open new operations in South Florida," Ms. Mivares said, "we do see this market continuing to be a thriving place for call centers to operate and remain committed to our operations in this area."