Cross border recruitment is a relatively new phenomenon for contact centre agents although it has been tried for middle management for years. It's been tried in India, The Philippines, South Africa and Eastern Europe. In this article, we look at how contact centre agents are moving to Prague in The Czech Republic
CROSS BORDER RECRUITMENT: BRITISH contact centre AGENTS HEADING EAST
There has been a lot of news recently about the number of people coming from the new member states of the European Union to The UK. However, there is a reverse trend. There are an increasing number of people from The UK and Ireland heading to countries like The Czech Republic looking for a different opportunity. Without being able to speak Czech, many of these people work for near-shore contact centres servicing the British marketplace.
It seems like a perfect solution; British agents happy to work for considerably less money than they would be in the UK and an opportunity to tap into the skills of people who may otherwise not have considered employment in contact centres.
We decided to take a look at 2 companies; Icon Communication Centres “Icon' in Prague and Launch Offshore, a specialist recruitment business which places people in offshore contact centres.
At contact centres .com, we were able to visit Icon and interview a number of their staff to find out why. Our main interview was with Richard Beagrie, a 37 year old from The UK. Back in Britain, Richard managed a chain of pubs. He had no contact centre experience before coming to Prague and admitted that working in a contact centre in The UK was not something he had ever considered. After talking to Richard, we spoke to many other staff members in Icon and it seemed that his story was replicated across the centre.
Why Do They Go?
From our discussions, there are 3 main reasons why people go to Prague.
(1) The cost of living in The UK is so high. For those of you have had the opportunity to visit Prague, you will have seen how relatively inexpensive many things are. However, for the staff at Icon, they don't live like tourists drinking in the bars along Wenceslas Square. They are able to live a Czech lifestyle where the essentials of life are considerably cheaper than in The UK. A number of the staff we spoke to shivered when I discussed house prices in The UK. For young, talented people, getting on the British housing ladder can seem an impossible task. The salary of a typical British contact centre agent can be absorbed by rent or mortgage payments but in Prague, they earn considerably less than they would in The UK but still have money to have a life changing experience in one of Europe's most beautiful cities.
(2) A change in lifestyle. Every single person we spoke to in Icon loved their life in Prague. When asked the question about their return to The UK, the most common answer was "never"! Of course, there are some people who are living abroad for a short period of time including some who were working then on a year-out before University. In a situation that I believe is unique, everyone I spoke to said that they would recommend working in a Prague contact centre. This was not necessarily due to the fact that they loved their jobs but more to do with the fact that the job enabled them to have this new and exciting lifestyle.
(3) Relationships. A large number of the agents had originally come to Prague because of a Czech partner or spouse. Since joining the EU, 10's of 1000's of Czechs have come to work in The UK. Many of these have met British partners and when they return to The Czech Republic the partner often follows. Without being able to speak Czech, they find themselves in English speaking contact centres in Prague. Almost every Brit working in Icon has a Czech partner. Some found their partner in The UK and some found them after starting work at Icon. In our very quick and unscientific survey, we discovered that most of the relationships had lasted longer than the typical agent would last in a British contact centre which would explain their low attrition rate.
Who Are Their Staff?
Not all of Icon's staff are from English speaking countries. Their staff base also comes from all over Central and Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. But by having such a large number of native English speakers, Icon has been able to avoid the issues of cultural awareness often faced by offshore contact centres.
There are effectively two groups of native English speaking people in Icon's contact centre. The first group is made up of people who have come to Prague for a life changing experience. These include people who are taking a year-out before or after university. There are also some people who simply wanted a change for one reason or another such as after a divorce, redundancy or were just bored of life in The UK. These people tend to stay for a limited period of time from 6 to 12 months and Icon tends to place them on tactical campaigns. The second group is of people who are in Prague for their spouses or partners. They tend to stay at Icon for much longer durations.
Like every call-centre, there is a wide array of people in Icon's centre. But Icon has been able to recruit people who would otherwise have not worked in a contact centre. Some might say they had little option but to work for a call-centre if they wanted to stay in Prague. However, we saw little evidence of people feeling undervalued. Icon's employees include a preacher and even a doctor. There can't be many countries in the world where the salary of a contact centre agent is comparable with that of a doctor!
The staff at Icon have a very strong bond in some ways similar to a British call-centre. However, in Icon, it seems to be much deeper due to the fact that everyone is a stranger in a foreign land. It is this which gives Icon its unique feeling. Icon staff also felt it was often too easy simply to mix with other foreigners but found it much more rewarding to mix with Czechs and the multitude of other nationalities that live in one of Europe's most cosmopolitan city. Many of the staff are trying to learn Czech. We use the word "trying" as it a very difficult language for English speakers to learn. Icon even provides free Czech lessons to their employees. It has proven to be a cost-effective tool way for Icon to give something back to their employees and it is something that everyone seems to appreciate. Working in Icon isn't just a job. It's part of their new way of life. They choose to live in Prague and working in Icon enables them to do that in a country which would otherwise offer limited opportunities.
Life in Prague does have its challenges. Richard says that "the biggest challenge of working and living is adapting to the many cultures that are here. I know many people that have stayed in their comfort zone and have not enjoyed their time here. My advice would be to mix with foreign nationals and natives alike. That is the best way to integrate yourself and find a great new life".
The Keys to Success
Launch Offshore are a UK based recruitment company which specialises in placing people into contact centres in different countries. They originally set up to help Indian companies bring in British talent in order to bridge the cultural divide but have found most of their business now comes from Eastern Europe. Tim Bond is the Managing Director of Launch Offshore and found that some new recruits face challenges. The main reason is down to money as many candidates misjudge the amount of money they will need to be able to survive until the first paycheck. This can start as soon as at the airport when they discover that "taking their entire life with them" can cost them a lot in excess baggage. Launch Offshore have produced a PDF guide of everything the new emigrant needs to be aware from where to find accommodation to the cost of a hamburger. Each guide is unique to every city where Launch Offshore place people.
Alison Smith recently joined Launch Offshore after 30 years working in recruitment around the world. She believes that one area often overlooked by recruiters is making the process transparent and fast for the agent. It can be a life changing moment moving to another country but too many companies slow down the process which often puts doubt in the mind of the applicant and they will pull out. This can be especially true of larger organisations with large h.r. departments. There are many companies in Eastern Europe seeking the limited pool of people wanting to work overseas and they will be snapped up by the centres who appear the most professional in the recruitment process. Tim also stated that some British citizens have difficulties with the management styles in developing countries. Successful British companies generally operate a flat management structure and look to empower their staff. This is less true in developing countries; the new recruit often finds themselves managed by someone with a more direct style and with less ability than themselves.
However, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. With Launch Offshore's client's including one of the world's leading software companies and the world's premier consulting firm, an employee can get opportunities to develop themselves that they would otherwise not have received. When it's time for the agent to come home, they find that with a professional company on their co and an ability to adapt outside of their comfort zone, their employment opportunities in The UK are enhanced. If they want to stay in their new country, there are also opportunities to be promoted very quickly