Dominicans hope cultural and familial ties to the United States bring the island a bigger share of the call center industry.
BY FRANCES ROBLES Miami Herald
''Did you unplug everything from the radio?'' the Dominican customer service agent asked her American client, with just the ever-slightest touch of an accent. As the Dominican Republic taps into its returning immigrant population to become the Caribbean's leader in the call center industry, few would notice her inflection. And that's the idea.
The Dominican Republic has embarked on an aggressive campaign to ditch its tropical tourism image in favor of one that's a bit more technological. The country is banking on both its proximity and family ties to the United States to snatch up growing call center commerce as more and more industries seek business operations closer to home — and more Americans are frustrated with customer service operators with accents from Asia.
The government in Santo Domingo is offering incentives, sending thousands of young people to English immersion school and clearing out failed textile factories to make room for one of the biggest trends in telecommunications: the Caribbean. The number of agents in the Caribbean increased fivefold in six years.
The Dominican Republic is not alone. Call centers — even one for AOL — have spread in St. Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad and Dominica, with an economic impact of at least $2.5 billion in the Caribbean alone, analysts say. Other countries in Latin America that have become magnets for call centers are Costa Rica and Panama.
''The perception that used to prevail was that the Dominican Republic was mostly a location for tourism with great beaches, a land of sugar and baseball,'' said Eddy Martínez, the Dominican Republic's secretary for exports and investments. “The image out there was a distorted one. That image did not include the fact that we have the most sophisticated and advanced telecom infrastructure in the entire Latin America and Caribbean region.''
Four years ago, the country had just 11 call centers. Now, there are 56 and nearly 25,000 employees who, at salaries of up to $650 a month, earn two or three times the going rate for comparable jobs. With more and more companies looking to expand in Spanish-speaking markets, Martínez said he expects to see 100,000 call center jobs in the next four years.
The government hopes to fill the posts with the thousands of students given scholarships to take nine-month English immersion courses.
The Caribbean region has about 60,000 call center jobs. The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean's industry leader, with Jamaica close behind with about 17,000 international call center jobs, according to Zagada Markets, a telecommunications consulting firm.
But Martínez said the top selling point for Santo Domingo is not just low labor costs or Spanish speakers, but culture. The bulk of the call center jobs are in English, and this nation of 10 million people has 1 million of its countrymen living in the United States.
''The Dominican Republic has a great cultural affinity for the United States,'' he said. “We've grown up with cable TV, CNN and U.S. channels and movies.''
And besides, he said, “They don't play baseball in India.''
Experts agree that a cultural connection is critical. After thousands of companies outsourced their call center operations to India and the Philippines in the past decade, more and more customers lashed back. They have balked at agents they can't understand or who are puzzled by idiomatic expressions like “I've lost my mind!''
So Caribbean call centers from Jamaica to Barbados are hoping their familiarity with everything from American sports and music will pay off for repeat business.
''People in the United States are complaining profusely of not being able to understand or not being understood,'' said industry consultant Philip Peters, CEO of Coral Gables-based Zagada Markets. “It's like a representative in Congress: they vote you in or out. Customers are voting certain call center locations out of office.''
The Caribbean's share of the call center industry still dwarfs places like India, which has 400,000 call center agents in a country with a population of 1.1 billion people.
But Peters warns that the Dominican government's strategy to lure foreign call center companies is risky because multinationals come quickly — and often leave just as fast. The next challenge, he said, is for the government to develop locally owned call center companies that would be more inclined to weather market ups and downs.
That said, the nation is becoming an industry leader largely because of positive reviews for quick problem-solving response times.
''You can have great government policy, low labor costs and good demographics, but at the end of the day if the service quality was low, you would not get a lot of new business,'' he said.
Roger Meier, vice president of the Caribbean Stream call center company, said the Dominican Republic represents just one of the 16 nations where Stream does business, but the company is looking for more sites.
''One of the reasons we've gone to Santo Domingo first and foremost is quality of the people,'' Meier said by phone from Costa Rica. “The people are responsive to whatever goes on in the United States. They've lived there, traveled there and understand the U.S.''
He said just 1,500 of the company's 16,000 worldwide jobs are currently in the Dominican Republic. Another 4,500 are in the United States, which has been losing ground in the industry as companies seek lower labor and telecom rates.
Meier acknowledged the challenges of working in developing countries, such as natural disasters or energy shortages. During The Miami Herald's visit to its Santo Domingo call center, the lights at Stream went out three times.
''The power went out,'' Meier said, “but the phones never stopped working.''