A conversation with contact center strategic consultant Rod Jones.
Back in the mid-to-late 1990s and into the early 2000s, I did a lot of work in the European contact center market, specifically in the U.K. and in The Netherlands. I chaired or attended many of the contact center events in these countries and, at most of these events, I regularly ran into a highly knowledgeable contact center consultant who offered advice and information in an accent that wasn’t quite British or Australian but somewhere in between. He also wore a lapel pin on his suits that I initially thought was the logo of British Rail or something similar. It didn’t take long to discover that this particular gentleman was Rod Jones of Johannesburg and his lapel pin was actually the flag of South Africa. That explained the accent.
I soon learned that Rod Jones was the premier contact center consultant on the African continent. He introduced me to a world of industry insights that I never dreamed existed. Providing both operational and technical expertise, Rod’s career has taken him across the continent of Africa, successfully establishing and optimizing contact centers in that developing market, generally working under conditions that would probably send most other contact center consultants running in the opposite direction screaming in terror!
I have a great deal of admiration for the work Rod has done, and continues to do. If he can successfully operate in the most challenging of economic, political and industry circumstances in Africa, I can only imagine what he could accomplish working with established contact centers here in the United States.
Rod and I have been friends for nearly 20 years now, staying in touch mostly via email until last month when we found ourselves at the same contact center industry event since the days of London and Amsterdam; Interactive Intelligence’s Interactions customer conference in Indianapolis. I took advantage of the rare opportunity to sit down with Rod and catch up on what’s happening with his consultancy in Africa and in the African contact center market.
I know that some readers won’t have any interest in the African contact center market and this isn’t written for you. This is written for customer service professionals with the intellectual curiosity and desire to better understand how the African contact center market may affect the U.S. market and the implications that come with the globalization of our industry.
The following are excerpts of my conversation with Rod last month.
Stockford: In 2000, The Economist magazine wrote a cover story in which they famously referred to Africa as “The Hopeless Continent.” Is that still true today or have things changed?
Jones: Africa is a resource provider and there have been some fundamental changes in that any downturn in resource demand, such as the recent downturn in oil prices, will have a direct effect on most countries in Africa. Economies in West Africa such as Nigeria and Angola have been hardest hit with the downturn and their economies have been decimated. Does that mean Africa is hopeless? I don’t think so. The timelines we expected for economic prosperity 15 years ago have shifted. Growth will be slower but we look optimistically toward the future.
Stockford: So where is the hope on the African continent?
Jones: We have pockets of growth. South Africa is a good example of growth in the middle market. Growth of the middle class has quadrupled over the past few years but we face our own challenges. The political situation in South Africa hasn’t met expectations and being a resource-driven economy has also hurt us. Our mining industry is in tatters and the global demand for gold is down significantly.
Stockford: So why do you have such hope for the African contact center industry?
Jones: Infrastructure is key to the development of the African contact center industry. Kenya, for example, got fiber about eight years ago. It was all satellite before that. Kenya has developed a high degree of technological expertise. They have a good education system that is based upon the British education system that was established when it was a crown colony. They have good, flat English accents that could potentially play a role in outsourced customer service in the future.
Despite its small size, Rwanda has a burgeoning IT support industry. Since French is the primary language in that country, they also have the potential for providing outsourced customer service for European countries. French language skills and education levels also have implications for customer service support in countries such as Morocco and Egypt.
Nigeria has huge potential for the African customer service industry. They have a massive population and the financial services industry there is growing. Ghana is adjacent to Nigeria and also has huge potential. Ghana was another British colony and still has remnants of the British colonial education system in place so there is an educated population there. There is a surplus of bandwidth in Ghana so they are poised for business process outsourcing (BPO) work. In fact, the government, with some additional funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, recently opened a 1,200-seat BPO park there.
Despite the deteriorating political environment in Zimbabwe, that country has about 30 micro contact centers primarily providing outbound customer service into South Africa. Like so many other African countries, Zimbabwe still has a good education system based upon the British model and they have a vast number of highly educated, highly motivated workers. In fact, many of these skilled workers are coming to South Africa to work in the contact center industry.
Botswana is seeing a great deal of investment in technology training from other countries, such as South Korea. As a country they have a small population, about 2.5 million people, but the country is huge in size; equivalent in landmass to Texas or France. It is probably the most stable economy in Africa. Botswana has a large population of educated workers with good, flat accents so they could serve both the U.S. and U.K. markets. If I were putting money down on BPO success in Africa, I’d put it on Botswana.
Stockford: How does South Africa fit into this growing African contact center industry?
Jones: South Africa is the only country that has the critical mass necessary to sustain 12% to 15% annual contact center industry growth in the future despite today’s relatively low GDP predictions of less than 1%. Expectations are for 1,000 new contact centers over the next decade, and the cloud will be the strategic differentiator as the vast majority of these new contact centers will be under 20 seats. The financial barriers to investment in the past, especially in the financial services industry, will be overcome by the cloud. One thing we have in Africa now is bandwidth, and lots of it. The cloud will be the enabler of the contact center in Africa.
Despite the wealth of bandwidth we have, professional customer service skills are still needed across the continent and my job is to deliver those skills to the growing industry. I’ve been working closely with Interactive Intelligence to educate the market. They understand the potential of the African market more than any other vendor I’ve spoken to. Overall, the contact center industry in Africa is a long-term project, but I believe the return on investment and exciting opportunities will be there. It takes patience to work in the African contact center market.
Stockford: Fascinating as always, Rod. I hope you’ll take my advice and do a U.S. contact center industry road show in the future. In the meantime, how do people find you?
Jones: The best way to reach me is via email at [email protected] . I also personally keep my website updated with a constant flow of new information. You can find it at www.rodjones.co.za .