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France Outsources, Senegal Calls

2004-07-18 08:00:00

DAKAR -- Holding a black telephone and clicking through options on a computer screen, Aissatou Diouf is conducting a customer survey for a big French mobile phone company.

Diouf is not calling from France, although she doesn't mention that to the client on the other end of the line. She is 2,500 miles away in Dakar, Senegal's capital -- one of hundreds of people sitting in rows of booths at a call center.

In an effort to copy India's success in the British and American markets, the Senegalese company sees the West African country as an ideal location for outsourcing work from French companies.

The good things about the job, Diouf says, are the regular hours and the variety in the projects she handles. The worst part is when people insult her for cold calling them.

"We don't have the freedom to answer back," she said.

Senegal, having retained the language of its former colonial power, has plenty of fluent French speakers. It also lies on the route of a high-quality fiber-optic link between Europe and Latin America. In France, a call from Dakar should sound pretty much like a call from Dijon.

Much like U.S. telemarketing companies enlisting the flatter tones of the Midwest, the Dakar call center staff are chosen partly because they have an accent neutral enough to pass for native French. Only a few of the people they call guess they are phoning from abroad.

"It's pretty rare. They say 'you have a charming accent,'" said Fanta Diop, a supervisor at the center who began as a telemarketer when the center opened in 2002. "They never guess it's black Africa."

Senegal ranks as one of the 20 least-developed countries in the world, but Premium Contact Center International prides itself on being run along modern Western lines. Its founders all have extensive experience working with international companies.

Gleaming in the sun on a platform outside the company's headquarters is a green Citroen C3 car -- ready to be awarded to the best telemarketer of the first six months of the year. The company provides a subsidized canteen and medical treatment on-site. Construction work is under way for an expansion of operations later this year.

The center was one of the first to be established in sub-Saharan Africa, and the continent is now branching out as a location for data processing and telemarketing. Ghana and South Africa are picking up business from the English-speaking world, while Senegal is following the lead of French-speaking north African countries such as Morocco.

In Senegal, the center can tap into a pool of well-educated young people who are happy to have a job in a country where the unemployment rate is more than 40 percent.

"There are a huge number of students who graduate without any work," said Karim Meddour, PCCI's production director, who has spent more than 10 years working in call centers and finds the Senegalese are generally more motivated and respectful than staff in Europe. "It's a lot more pleasant to manage here than it is in France," he said.

The 600 telemarketers' pay is not much by Western standards, but at $220 to $275 a month, it is more than five times the average in Senegal. The lower cost of labor is, of course, one big reason for moving white-collar jobs from the West to poorer countries. Abdoulaye Sarre, PCCI's chief executive, says hourly costs are between 30 and 35 percent lower than in Europe.

But Sarre says large Western companies are not looking primarily at cost when they choose to contract work out to foreign call centers. Anxious not to alienate their clients, they want assurances that the quality of service will be high.

"The cost comes in last position," he said.

To establish high standards, new recruits have three weeks of training to learn things such as names of French towns and how to greet someone from France, a process involving a lot less chit-chat than it does in Senegal.

The center works with a local college to make its telemarketers' accents as neutral as possible. And it checks Internet weather reports so callers can refer to the weather or concentrate their efforts on a specific area if it is raining there and people are more likely to be indoors.

Many clients are well-known companies, but PCCI is not allowed to publish their names. With outsourcing a sensitive topic in the West, no one wants to admit they are choosing Africans over French workers.

Sarre has a pat response to those who say outsourcing is damaging Western economies. A business like his, he argues, puts money in the pockets of Senegalese people who then use it to buy Western products.

Besides, if they weren't working for him, he adds, "65 to 80 percent of them would be candidates for immigration into Europe."

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