In the early 2000s, hope was looming in the air that a new kind of business might flourish in Bangladesh. Around the same time, developed countries such as the US and Europe were abuzz with Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) to cut business costs. And one of the vital methods of BPO was the call centre business.
Neighbouring India did not fail to seize the opportunity of the call centre business and managed to develop the industry particularly well in a very short time.
That wind carried over to Bangladesh too, and a section of business entities dreamt that Bangladesh too could easily become a hotspot for the call centre business.
But when it came down to actually building the business, it did not quite materialise. Bangladesh could not secure international outsourcing jobs the way Bangladeshi businessmen assumed they would.
"It was a booming business and we thought, if India can, we could as well. India's booming business motivated us," said Shohrab Ahmed Chowdhury, the managing director of Synthesis IT Limited, one of the leading call centre companies in the country.
Although Bangladesh has made huge progress domestically in the call centre business over the last decades, it has failed to capture the international market largely owing to scarce English-speaking manpower, infrastructure, connectivity and large-scale investment.
According to industry leaders, the current market size of the country's BPO sector stands at 600 million dollars. Of them, the domestic market share is 200 million dollars while international export is 400 million dollars.
In 2009, when call centres were first introduced in Bangladesh, around 400 licences were issued, and now that number of the call centres has come down to less than 100.
When India was busy doing brisk business, many training centres mushroomed in the cities to develop manpower. Some companies even brought foreign experts to train young people. People flooded in to set up training centres, and many fresh graduates received training in the hope of earning in dollars.
The regulatory authority Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) was busy formulating a licensing policy for the new business, and finally gave licences to businessmen.
"But we failed to capture the international market. Foreigners would come, hold meetings but eventually, the work would go to India," said Shohrab Ahmed Chowdhury.
Industry insiders believe that Bangladesh failed to catch the drift of the international market since the beginning. The major deficiencies they identified include total dependency on a single submarine cable, lack of English-speaking manpower, and costly investment.
On top of that, Bangladeshi call centre agents did not have the soft skills for handling a customer because it was a new business and thus they lacked proper training.
"When an American calls, he will not talk to you in a polished language. He will talk to you in a local accent," said Shohrab Ahmed Chowdhury.
The problems in fact still persist. The call centre industry in the country still works for some international companies, but the total contribution from that to the economy is insignificant.
The Philippines and India are leading the call centre industry globally. The size of their back-office IT services and call centres is around $200 billion. Bangladesh is working with a target of $5 billion. IT export from Bangladesh is just over $1 billion.
In Bangladesh, numerous problems with infrastructure and connectivity, like the submarine cables, have already been solved. Internet connectivity is stable now and its cost has gone down greatly. However, some problems still exist, which are holding the industry back from securing international orders.
The lack of a sizable English-speaking workforce is still a major setback for the industry.
"It is the biggest challenge for the Bangladeshi call centre industry," said Prince Mojumder, the chief executive officer of Genex Infosys Limited, the largest call centre in Bangladesh.
Prince said that one could find 20-30 English-speaking employees, but it becomes difficult for them when the requirement is 200-400.
"If someone has a good command of spoken English, he or she has many ways to earn a living. It then becomes a challenge to retain this workforce," said Prince. "Many of them face these challenges and shut down their company."
Towhid Hossain, General Secretary of Bangladesh Association of Call Centre and Outsourcing (BACCO), said that they have sat with the education ministry and asked the ministry to take an initiative in this regard. However, the ministry said that it was hard for them to make any changes to the existing curriculum.
Towhid Hossain said Filipino students learn about different areas of BPO from their undergrad first year. When they graduate, they do not have to do an internship and can directly join the workforce.
Bangladesh has to get out of its conventional curriculum. When a fresh graduate comes out with good grades, their results do not corroborate with the job skills, he added.
The second most important challenge in the industry is the night shifts for women. Parents do not allow their daughters to work the night shift in call centres in our society. There are also safety concerns.
But the picture in India is a whole lot different. The night-time in Indian IT parks is as buzzing as daytime.
"If you work for US clients, you will have to work at night. We need to increase the participation of women in the call centres as the clients prefer women because they can easily convince customers," said Towhid Hossain.
Investment is also an important drawback. If someone secures a contract for work that will require a 5-seat call centre, he or she will have to invest in a full set-up, with a supervisor and an IT person. However, the client will give you money for the five seats, when a room generally consists of 20 seats. You will also have to keep offices open even when there is no work. As a result, the overall cost increases.
"We cannot tell the client that we have no more work beside theirs. But in the Philippines, you can rent a single seat for a single hour," said Towhid Hossain.
In the past, many call centre businesses suffered a lot because of fraudulent clients. After finishing their work, oftentimes they did not get the bills. As they had little experience in the market, it was difficult for them to distinguish between real clients and fraudulent ones.
But call centre owners have improved. Now they send representatives to the destination country to hold in-person meetings. "However, it is not always possible for small call centre owners to have in-person meetings in the US," said Towhid.
According to Towhid, Bangladesh embassies in foreign countries can play a role in promoting business in developed countries.
He said they need to participate in the Call and Contact Centre Expo every year to attract foreign clients. But to do so, they need government support. He said they only participated in one Call and Contract Expo held in 2019 in Las Vegas.
"It will not help much participating in an expo only once. We have to participate for five to six years continually. We want this support from different ministries. It costs a lot to participate in such expos," said Towhid Hossain.
He said that Bangladesh should employ foreigners who have deep knowledge of the destination countries' markets. Then the scope for business will increase.
Interestingly, in the last couple of years, the BPO sector has undergone a lot of change, and different kinds of work orders are increasing in the BPO sector - such as data entry, non-voice digital marketing, financial accounting outsourcing, etc.
Association leaders said that though the call centre is one of the crucial parts of BPO, other kinds of work are also available.
"The members of the association were once a hundred percent dependent on call centres. Now, the dependency has come down to 30%. The rest of the 70% have diversified their business. Worldwide, only 15% of the BPO sector is working on call centres," said Towhid Hossain.
Meanwhile, the call centre industry has seen considerable success in the domestic market. Only 300 people worked in the call centres industry in 2009. Now the number of employees has risen to 65,000.
"We are successful in the local market, but if we think globally, we are still far behind in global competition," said Towhid Hossain.
Over the last decades, the global trend of call and contact centres has also undergone enormous change. In the past, European countries and the US outsourced call centres to countries like India and the Philippines.
Now they are using cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and business intelligence. Most of their call centres at present are based on robotics and chatbots.
"When you call a call centre, they can answer whatever question you ask, but they are artificial," said Towhid Hossain.