Africa – The New Lion of the Call Center Industry

Africa is quickly becoming a new HUB for the call center industry.  However, through misperception or inexperience, many “call center” people around the world are unaware of what this burgeoning market has to offer.  Well, the African people are working to change that.  Africa is a huge place with diverse cultures, a highly educated workforce, a supportive business climate, and a solid, community-driven desire to do a good job in order to build up the “whole”.  The Call Center Power team is committed to assisting the African people to change the perceptions of their call center market by educating as many people as we can about this amazing place.  Check out our podcast series “Africa – The New Lion of the Call Center Industry” to learn more.


In this episode, we speak with Chris Nillesen, Chief Legal Officer of CCI Global. With our joint exploration trip to Africa as the backdrop, we share our collective experiences and observations of the African people, business climate, technology, infrastructure and so much more.  Listen now to start your African call center journey!


Brian:
Welcome to the Call Center Corner, brought to you today by Call Center Power. My name is Brian Redden, and I’m here with our special guest, Chris Nillesen from CCI Global. Hi, Chris. How are you doing today?


Chris:
Hi. I’m very good. Thank you. And thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.


Brian:
I’m glad we had the opportunity to get together today and spend the last week and a half together on a trip here in Africa, which we’ll definitely talk more about as we go through the podcast. I would love if we have an opportunity for you to talk about your role, yourself, and CCI.


Chris:
Thank you. My name is Chris Nillesen. I’m the chief legal officer for CCI Global. CCI are a business process outsourcing specialist, largest in Africa, operating out of South Africa, with sites in Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and also out of Kenya with a site in Nairobi. We are in the process of opening sites in Ghana and in Rwanda, and also looking at Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe. It’s a very busy time, a lot of work coming in. We handle a lot of inbound, outbound work for clients in English language jurisdictions, so the UK, Australia, the USA, obviously. And it’s been a really exciting journey, to see the growth of the BPO market in South Africa and in Kenya in particular, and so now the expansion into the wider Africa.


Brian:
That’s very, very cool. We’ve had an opportunity, myself primarily, to learn more about CCI over the last week and a half or so, on our trip. We’re definitely going to share more about CCI, one of our spotlighted partners. So we’re looking forward to that and telling the world about CCI specifically. But for the listeners out there, this particular podcast, we’re here to talk about Africa as a burgeoning call center market. There’s a lot going on in Africa, and frankly, a lot of folks in the United States and really around the world don’t know what’s happening here, and certainly all the possibilities that Africa offers the contact center industry around the world. So we usually do our podcasts from D.C. and Texas, but for the listeners out here, listening to us now, we’re actually out in Durban, South Africa today, recording. We’ve had a week and a half trip here where we’ve gone to Kenya and spent some time up there. And now we’ve been to South Africa the last few days, and it’s been fantastic, great trip with Chris and the other CCI folks. But again, we’ll talk more about that down the road. So Chris, the purpose of this, of our podcast in general, is to educate folks that don’t know or people who aren’t in the call center industry, but even folks that have a lot of experience and a lot of years, a lot of mileage in the contact center industry about different markets, technologies, operational trends, and so forth. Taking this opportunity to talk about Africa and really start to showcase all the elements of the continent, and again, what’s happening out there. It reminds me of what Latin America went through 12 or 15 years ago when it started to come up as a contact center, call center market, rivaling even the Philippines and India. It feels like Africa’s kind of going out and starting that same track. One of the things we’d love to start talking about, kind of introducing the call center market as a whole, and I know that you and CCI have a lot of experience here in Africa. If you could just tell us a little bit about the market, just how it’s structured and how it is out here.


Chris:
Yeah. Obviously Africa is a very large continent. When we’re talking about Africa, in the north you have Egypt and you kind of go all the way down. Sometimes people make sort of preconceptions or misconceptions about the continent, because it’s just, it’s so massive. It’s like saying the whole of South America is the same. Within those jurisdictions, you have very different degrees of political stability, infrastructure, investment. You have differences within that. I think that’s important to remember. You look at South Africa and what CCI has done there, they identified fairly early on that there’s a large English speaking young population here, high levels of unemployment, which is not due to a lack of skills, it’s more a lack of jobs. And so the ability to provide jobs with a growth opportunity as well, a steady income, and a great working environment, it has resulted in really successful delivery to clients that we serve. There’s a genuine hunger and a desire to be successful. You get a combination of people really wanting to work, really wanting to be successful. Then on top of that, the infrastructure in Africa or in places like South Africa and in Kenya is absolutely robust enough to handle the call center services. But on top of that, it is being expanded. It is being invested into. Now, that’s not to say that doing business in Africa doesn’t come without its challenges. I think if you have the right partner with the right experience, then you can absolutely be successful. And then on top of that, you can do something where it has a really meaningful impact. When you see the call center agents that come through and sort of qualify into CCI and the difference it makes to their lives, it’s incredible. And it’s actually really humbling. It’s something where you think this is part of the reason why I do what I do, and I can convincingly sell what CCI stands for the clients, because it’s the truth. That’s very powerful. And to see also the opportunity for those agents to graduate and to grow within the company, so we’ve got a very successful path for agents to become team leaders or senior operating leaders. That’s really great. I think it’s about getting the right partners. It’s not like there are no issues in Africa. There are obviously, there’s an element of political instability at times. There are other issues with transport. There may be different issues than you see in markets like the US or Europe. 

On the flip side of that, I think that the hunger is very important. There’s a real desire to be successful. If there are difficulties or problems, we will find ways to resolve those. One of the things that we saw was around the power supply here in South Africa at the moment, is that the network doesn’t produce enough power for the consumption that there is. There’s just too many people, and so they’re trying to increase the capacity. But as a result, you get what’s called load shedding, which is that some hours of the day, the power will get reduced, or cut, effectively. Now, that is something that is very frightening, because you think, well, this is a terrible thing. But at CCI, as an experienced operator in this region, we have universal power systems within for each client, a backup onto the backup. Then on top of that, a generator in the basement. In the event that anything does happen, there’s a great capacity to address those issues. I think in a strange kind of way, the fact that it comes with its challenges and the fact that you can deal with those challenges means that you are more agile, more flexible. Your systems are being tested on a sort of fairly regular basis, or you need to actually ensure they are tested. I think my experience from Europe and the US was sometimes that these plans in the event of something happening never get looked at. So when something does go slightly wrong, like it snows in London, the systems just break down and nothing works. Now, that is something that you don’t see out here. I can pretty confidently say that the tech systems that we’ve got, the redundancies that we have, the workarounds we’ve got, is that clients can be serviced in almost any circumstance. That in a way is reassuring to see. So that’s been really good, and I think it’s been really impressive.

The other point I wanted to capture was what impresses me with Africa is the embracing of the digital economy, and with cloud computing and with mobile payment systems. I mean, we see this in Kenya with what’s called M-Pesa. Nobody carries cash. People use mobile phones to send money to each other, to pay for items. It’s safer, it’s quicker, it’s instant. You see this also with the cloud computing to a certain extent, is that they’re not bound by legacy systems. In some other countries, you’ve got wired systems or you have telecom providers who have vested interests in maintaining outdated systems, and they don’t want to invest the cost in upgrading those systems. In a way, the fact that those systems maybe weren’t there in the first place was a disadvantage. But now, the opportunity in Africa is to go straight into 5G networks and have systems that are really state of the art. Now, again, it’s not to say that things are flawless and everything is perfect, but with the right partner and the levels of investment that you’re seeing in Africa, I think the direction of travel is very clear in that it’s a place for the future, the hunger, the desire to succeed, and the fact that in South Africa and in Kenya, we have a lot of very good English speaking people, people who speak English at home. They have a contextual understanding of English, which is different from maybe other traditional PPO markets, like the Philippines and India. The ability to understand things like sarcasm or humor, to be able to manage a customer on a journey, certainly I know from my own personal experience dealing with call centers that the agent can have a tremendous impact on which way that call goes and your frustration levels. And there is, you know, we’re all humans. That ability to sometimes take that on, I’m always kind of impressed. I always enjoy when I’m here to see the amount of humor and understanding that people have, and not just of their own culture, but of foreign cultures. They know stuff about the US and about Europe, and they’re incredibly well rounded, I think, in that respect, considering their age as well.


Brian:

A lot to unpack there, a lot of great information. That’s what we want to do. We want to let everybody know, get the secret out, I guess, relative to Africa. That’s a lot of great stuff. You know, on this trip, I came out here, and as many folks probably would, I did have some misperceptions about Africa. And the first thing that struck me, there were a couple of really, I guess, big rocks that really struck me. One was the quality of the people that we met. When I say quality, there’s a lot to that, and I’ll talk about that. We went on our trip this week and a half, two weeks. We’ve gone primarily to Nairobi, Kenya, and also just Durban, South Africa. We’ve covered a couple of spots, major spots, in two of the African countries that have a fairly large contact center footprint. What I saw were in both places a very educated group of folks, especially up in Nairobi. Like I think I said in my LinkedIn post, that I felt a little bit under-credentialed when I was in the agent focus group, because these guys, they take their education very seriously. That translates to their work, the quality of the work that they deliver from a contact center perspective. I also heard very good English articulation out there. In the United States, a lot of folks, a lot of customers, may have concerns with accents and so forth. And I don’t know why. I mean, I’ve got as thick of an accent as anybody. But anyway, so what I saw were people who have a mastery of the English language and do a really good job communicating with customers over the phone, and even chat and email, et cetera, the written word as well. So that was very impressive. 

To your point earlier, the positive attitude of these folks, in both Kenya and Durban, just people who are excited to work, they want to do a good job, generally passionate about customer service. In my line of work, we hear that quite a bit. They’re passionate about customer service, and then when you start getting quality scores and so forth, you’re like, well, maybe not. But what we’ve seen here, these folks really revel in the job and enjoy delivering good customer service, which that was great to see, as well, in both areas.

The other thing that I noticed, and there’s really dichotomy, in Nairobi, I witnessed, you talk about a city on the move. I mean, a ton of construction. I saw cranes everywhere, new buildings being built, and also buildings that had been around for a while that basically had cranes around them. And they were being refurbished, and new highways being put in, to your point. The technology infrastructure seemed on point. I mean, no matter where we went, wifi and cell service was spot on. So just things like that. I mean, it was really, really interesting to see that, and really, really cool. Then you come to Durban, and Durban seems to be a little more established. It actually reminded me of probably a mini Miami a little bit. Right on the water. There’s a little bitty five block South Beach kind of thing going on out here. But again, there’s a pretty big call center footprint here in Durban. I can see why. But again, same thing in Nairobi, just top notch infrastructure from our standpoint. Very nice, traffic was very, very manageable here. In Nairobi, it’s a little more, there’s a lot more traffic, but anyway… In both cities though, they both have their charm. They’re both, they’re different, but they’re the same in many aspects. So we’ve definitely enjoyed the trip from that standpoint. Africa does have quite a bit to offer. And again, I think the secret’s starting to get out here a little bit.


Chris:
I was just going to say, a lot of investment from the Chinese as well. In Nairobi, you see that money, and I don’t want to talk about politics, but that is being invested in infrastructure projects so that new roads are being built. They want to create a new business district. Separately from that, one of the things that you see as well, which is coming out of Africa, is the understanding of needing to create places for business that match international standards. They do want to court the likes of IBM or Google, or to get these big companies to come to Africa. For example, in Nairobi, what they’re doing is just north of Nairobi, they’re creating a special zone where the government has permitted a developer to have an area where the taxes are reduced for I think 10 years or 15 years, if you go there. Then within there, they want to build some schools, some housing, a special access between the airport and this free zone effectively. We are looking at building one of our sites there, to be an anchor tenant. It’s exciting. They’re trying to do these kind of things, looking forward to a future. It’s sort of symptomatic of countries that are developing and are growing and recognize the value of having a system of reduced tax or increasing the number of visas. We’ve seen other things where I opened a business in Rwanda. Rwanda has a specific investment board, as does Ghana as well. These boards are focused on trying to bring in new businesses and to help companies that are looking to explore Africa and to say, hey, look, we can help you to set up your business. We can help you find people. We can help you get grants in order. Because there is a lot of goodwill that is around with NGOs, with other organizations, so to try and tap into that, it can be a real win-win.

But I would, again, stress that it’s important to have the right partner. I think from what you’ve seen, probably, Brian, as well, is that the CCI model is also based on understanding that you need to make sure that your employees are happy. So those call center agents, there’s a great team spirit, there’s a great understanding, but also to create an environment where the offices are clean, there’s enough space. There’s a good cafeteria. There’s the ability to do social things together. These are all young people. When you create that kind of spirit, together with the natural energy and the hunger that you’ve got, and so to create a pathway not just for themselves, but also for the people around them, for the young people I’m talking about, it’s very successful. Then you kind of go, the potential here is enormous. And I genuinely believe that.


Brian:
And you can see it. Like you said from the minute I got off the plane in Nairobi, you can see it all the way down here to Durban. It’s crazy to see the vibrancy of the market. The power situation that you discussed, it kind of dovetails off this, when we were working down in Central America, 9 or 10 years ago, a lot of our clients, well, all of our clients, when we would bring up Honduras or Guatemala, they’d be like, “Wait a minute, we can’t go down there.” But once we got them down there and really showed them not only the capabilities down there from a technology perspective, infrastructure, blah, blah, blah, but more importantly, we showed them the quality of the people, that they sold themselves. I say this all the time, and my business partner Doug feels the same way, and many people on our team, we’ve worked with a ton of BPO call center partners throughout our 30 plus years in the industry. And there’s a couple of companies down there that they are by far the most well run BPOs that I’ve ever worked with directly. And in large part it’s because the quality of the people, it’s almost like they have an advantage because the people are just so strong. 

When I came here to Africa and started to really get a sense for the culture, and like I said, the people, the quality of the people, I got a very Central and South American vibe here, just from a quality of the people perspective, which is huge. I think I said this a couple nights ago, when we’re talking to our clients, a lot of the first things we talk about is what are the rates, what’s their infrastructure like? Can they support French, German, blah, blah, blah? But when the dinner’s over and you’re having coffee or a cocktail, and you’re getting deeper into the discussion, it always comes down to the people. And the discussion always ends up talking about the quality of the people, leadership team, coaching practices, that kind of stuff, attrition causes. And when you come to a place like Africa and you see, and we were fortunate to see you all’s leadership team, CCI’s leadership team, and sites and so forth in action, which was really cool. Like I said, we’ll talk more about CCI specifically in a different podcast, but it was just real neat to see the passion and the loyalty. Loyalty was something that came up quite a bit in the focus groups we did. They’re loyal not only to the company, but they’re loyal to their customers, these people are loyal to the brands they service. They’re very proud to work for the brands they service, and they’re very verbose about it, which is awesome. 

The last individual observation for me, because a lot of our clients, again, with the Central America, Latin America, there’s a perception, and in Honduras specifically, there’s a similar situation on the power shedding deal. They have a similar situation, and like here in South Africa, what we witnessed, to your point, because it’s scheduled, it’s well managed, it’s understood. Companies, hotels, restaurants, stores, call center companies all have prepared for it. They’ve all got their own infrastructure in place to make sure that it minimizes or negates completely the impact. I’m saying this piece because I want our clients to listen to this and potential clients who listen to this to understand that we’ve witnessed these power shedding events a couple of times, and it’s completely seamless. The lights go off for two seconds and then you’ve got, to your point, and it didn’t matter where we were, whether it was the hotel, we were actually in the CCI office and it happened within 5 or 10 seconds. All the power was back on. You didn’t even know really that there was a problem. So it’s managed very well, and frankly we didn’t see it in Nairobi. It’s not an African thing. We want to make sure folks understand that. It’s also not something I think that the South Africans in particular are okay with. Cape Town has gotten to the point now where we heard last night that this doesn’t happen anymore. So these countries and these cities, they’re working very diligently to always upgrade and improve infrastructure. There’s just a lot going on here. It’s a great place. We’ve learned a lot.


Chris:
I think, just to your point about attrition, you’re right. When I hear attrition rates of call center agents in the US, I’m astounded. I’m not surprised to a certain extent, but it’s just, the attrition rates here are so much lower. It’s a combination of, like you said, that they have that hunger, but also I think at CCI, and again, maybe they’ve created the right culture. There’s always a risk, like you said. Price is always very front and center with clients. But I do think also you need to make sure that, like you said, quality. It’s getting that balance right between having call center agents who are motivated, who understand the brands, who are proud to work for those brands, and who earn a decent living and have kind of decent incentives to be successful, is ultimately much more valuable than saying, you know what, I’ll save a dollar on the head rate, but actually I have major issues with quality. I think that’s important for people, because you will always find someone who will do it cheaper. I think that ultimately is a risk you need to be aware of, that the cheapest is not the best necessarily.


Brian:
That’s very well said. We try to have pretty honest conversations with our clients around that. Again, for the folks that are listening, Africa is an extremely affordable market to do business in. However, it’s not the Philippines in general, it’s not $6 an hour, or India, $6 an hour place, but I think that from a rate to quality of work and caliber of people ratio, I think it’s in a really, really good spot. When we have an opportunity to start to send clients or introduce clients to the African market, and certainly with CCI, we are definitely going to do that because I’m getting, over the last two weeks, I’ve gotten to the point where I would feel comfortable putting my clients down here, knowing that the people, the customer service agents themselves, will take care of their brand and will take care of their customers. I have no problem with that at all. It’s been a great experience.


Visit callcenterpower.com/call-center-corner-a-podcast-series to listen to the full podcast episode.

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