CAIRO: The Cairo Information and Communication Technology (ICT) conference opened yesterday with exhibits of local and international companies. Discussions continuing all week are on various topics and will include telecommunications liberalization, ICT in manufacturing and electronic payment. Meanwhile, Xceed Chairman and Chief Executive Adel Danish spoke to The Daily Star Egypt about his call center business and its place in the global market.
Xceed s origins date back to the establishment of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, headed at the time by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. One of Nazif s first actions was to change the composition of the board of Telecom Egypt (TE), adding members from the private sector, including Danish.
Nazif also planned to carve out three sectors; internet service, information technology and mobile – from TE to separate entities. TE Data was established to provide internet services and Xceed for information technology; the mobile unit was not created and TE instead purchased 25 percent of Vodafone Egypt, although it does intend to bid for the third mobile license.
Xceed was responsible for supporting and upgrading TE s information technology infrastructure. Meanwhile, says Danish, one of TE s biggest challenges was to improve its treatment of customers; the company began as a government authority and continued to consider its customers citizens.
Our customers, by definition, have phones, says Danish, adding that it is more convenient for customers to pay bills and enquire about services by phone rather than in person. This prompted the establishment of a call center by Xceed with 250 seats to handle TE s customer service number (111) and carry out telemarketing campaigns.
TE has 10 million fixed line customers who, on average, make 50,000 customer service calls a day. This gave Xceed s call center a critical mass from the start, which it could use as a base for exporting services. The agenda is not only for Xceed to export, says Danish. The agenda was to create an industry of call centers in Egypt.
The prohibitive price of international calls, however, was initially a major obstacle for exporting services. Xceed successfully lobbied for the reduction in the price of a T1 line, over which 30 simultaneous calls can be carried, from $18,000 to $6,000 per month. This was subsequently further reduced to the current level of $3,500.
The present cost of international lines, says Danish, is globally competitive and cheaper than many countries with active call center industries, including India. This gives Egypt one of its three competitive advantages in the call center market. Egypt is extremely lucky, Danish explains, because all the submarine fiber optic cables that link Japan to Europe and to the United States go through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and sometimes they go through Cairo … So we are sitting on a highway.
The fiber optic cables have some excess capacity which is available to Egypt at a low cost.
Another competitive advantage is the availability of domestic labor. While graduates skilled in a variety of languages are abundant, they frequently lack the ability to deal with customers in an appropriate manner. With the support of the government, Xceed provided training to its agents on communicating with customers. Since Xceed today serves several countries, its agents are also educated on the culture they serve and newsletters about current events in the respective country are regularly circulated to agents.
Egypt s third competitive advantage in the call center industry is that many individuals are multilingual and have a somewhat neutral accent in English, French and other languages; Egyptians speaking foreign languages are therefore generally easier to understand than nationals of several other countries. Egypt also benefits from lower employee turnover than India, where competition amongst call centers has led agents to regularly change jobs and has driven up their wages.
Xceed s call center in the Smart Village now has approximately 800 agents that work in shifts covering 24 hours a day. Danish believes Egypt s call center industry is well-positioned internationally and is set to grow, citing a Datamonitor report that identifies Egypt as an emerging call center option. Xceed s call center has grown by 50 percent since commencing operations two years ago and Danish expects this to continue in the future.
The call center serves 12 countries in nine languages with a number of multinational clients including Microsoft, Oracle and General Motors. Foreign clients contribute to some 50 percent of profits and Danish aims to increase this contribution to 80 percent in the long-run.
The key to a successful call center, says Danish, is to keep agents happy. Xceed works toward this by providing its agent with ergonomic seats, anti-glare flat screens and an on-site gym and clinic.
Monitoring performance is also important to ensure that customers are served efficiently and amicably. The company received a certification from the Customer Operations Performance Center in this regard last December. The certification is granted to call centers that meet international standards of performance management.
The government plans to allow new providers for long-distance calls this year. This liberalization will help the call center industry, says Danish, by reducing the cost of communications and increasing the quality and speed of delivery of services.