Philippines, Not India is World's Call Centre Capital

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 12/09/2010 12:03:00 AM
Now this article kind of took me by surprise. While India is renowned as a global hub for business process outsourcing (BPO)--we even have popular entertainment glamorizing its services-led economic renaissance in Slumdog Millionaire--it seems another country has been away from the BPO limelight that has just stolen India's thunder. Alike India, the Philippines has been subject to the (English-speaking) white man's burden of enlightening us coloured people about the benefits of markets and democracy (well sort of). Also like India, then, the Philippines has a large English-speaking population which happens to be tertiary educated. And while India has its slumdog millionaires, the Philippines has its own emerging call centre subculture of those who work the night shift to synchronize with overseas markets like Western Europe and North America. (As a side note, I am very pleased with phenomenon since daytime traffic in Manila is horrendous.) Heck, stories of escapades by call centre workers are rife with alleged rises in HIV cases being attributed to them.

Anyway, back to the story. Earlier this year, I was struck by outgoing Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claiming in May that the Philippines was second only to India in BPO foreign exchange revenues. Pretty impressive for a country that's not been as widely stereotyped as a call centre destination, right? Well now comes news that, actually, the Philippines is set to end the year ahead of India in terms of call centre employees and revenues for 2010. Of course, call centres are only a sliver of the BPO market--and not often very attractive ones unless you consider telemarketing and fielding customer service calls fun.

I am also not entirely sure if the head of the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT)--an executive-level body in the Philippine government--has his numbers entirely right. But, as the Indians aren't contesting these figures, perhaps they're correct. From BusinessWorld:
The [Philippines] may have surpassed India in terms of call center employees and revenues, but it has yet to take a similar lead in other segments of outsourcing, an official said Tuesday. Commission on Information and Communications Technology Chairman Ivan John E. Uy told reporters at the sidelines of an electronics industry conference that the Philippines had exceeded India in the number of new employees, with 15,000 as of end-October. "India had 13,800 new hired [sic] employees for this year but we still have to wait until the year ends."

Mr. Uy said the Philippines had also surpassed India in call center revenues, with $5.5 billion as of end-October against the latter’s $5.3 billion. "We are projecting to reach $5.8 billion by the end of the year, while India projected $5.5 billion. These are significant accomplishments, but the entire [Philippine outsourcing] industry is still valued at $9 billion, while India is at $47 billion," he said.

On its Web site, IT services firm SourcingLine said the entire outsourcing industry goes beyond call centers, to include services that demand higher skills like software development, engineering design and investment research. Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines chief executive officer Oscar R. SaƱez said in a phone interview that the country’s annual offshore outsourcing revenues could more than double to $25 billion, equivalent to a 10% share of the global market, by 2016.

"The industry can grow from $9 billion in annual revenues and approximately 500,000 direct employees today to $20 billion and 900,000 employees by 2016 if current conditions are sustained and with a lot of hard work," he said.
The reasons given for this surprising factoid are many (and a few are likely self-serving): Filipinos have a more "neutral" accent (i.e., they can imitate talking like white people more easily--cue "Apu Nahasapeemapetilon"); Philippine workers are better equipped with relevant skills; etc -
"We won this war not because we're lower cost than India. To some extent, we are a little bit higher priced to operate a call center compared to India. We won this battle by virtue of Filipino quality. We grew faster than India because it's the Filipino talent, which is world class caliber," he said. He noted that Indian call centers are already migrating some of their operations to the country.

Jojo Uligan, CCAP corporate secretary and executive director, said the Philippines played up its strengths in the past 10 years by being a superior value destination for US companies. He said Filipinos have a better cultural affinity to Americans, and their accents are more neutral. "When you train a Filipino to speak English, you would never know it is a Filipino. I think Americans like to talk to a person they can understand," he said...

"We're not just focusing on the United States but other English-speaking countries like the UK, which we only service a little. Australia and New Zealand are also good potential for us. But again, if you can market in these areas where we service a smaller percentage of the business, then we will have a better chance of getting more jobs," he said...
But then comes the honest truth: call centres are atthe bottom end of the BPO totem pole. So, in reality, India may already be leaving such services behind in search of greener and more profitable pastures:
Call centers are generally positioned at the bottom of the BPO value chain since they provide lower profit margins compared to other BPO offerings. Non-voice BPO offerings, such as financial, medical, editorial, and engineering services, contribute higher profit margins, thus is preferred by more established BPO players, including those from India.

Local BPO firms have pursued call center services as part of a strategy. Call centers are considered as their entry point for a slice of the non-voice outsourced and/or offshored businesses of clients.
So perhaps it's Jai-Ho (You Are My Destiny) for the Philippines to rule the roost in call centre operations, but the challenge is to continue to move up the ladder like India in terms of the sophistication and profitability of services on offer such as CAD/CAM work, digital animation and so forth. In the meantime, Shakalaka Baby not to Bangalore but to Manila!

Already I'm thinking of preparing my screenplay for The Great Philippine Call Centre Movie to raise public awareness about the country's status as the world leader. In tawdry modern fashion, it will concern before or after work-hours recreational (procreational?) activities by call centre workers. Fielding calls by Yanks who don't know what a MAC address is, long-distance love triangles at Hewlett-Packard Philippines, an A.R. Rahman soundtrack, Danny Boyle for the's a guaranteed hit, I tell you. I am yours forever; yes forever I will follow...