There's a large, airy building on Tridevi Marg, Thamel, but few who walk by have any idea what lies above the deli and coffee shop. Behind the glass doors on the second floor is a world far away from Thamel's bustle: a state-of-the-art workplace connected to every corner of the globe, a sound- and dust-proof set-up of some sixty work stations hooked up to every possible means of communication. The hive of intricately arranged cubicles are buzzing with activity, but Om Bhattachan, manager of ServingMinds, which bills itself as more than just a call centre, says this is just the beginning. The almost uniformly young staff is undergoing training and dry runs before the centre starts functioning-24 hours a day, seven days a week. And going by the response of their first client, who is stunned by the quality of service available in Nepal, this could be a booming industry in the near future, and one that earns us hard foreign currency.
"We call this place a multimedia contact centre," Bhattachan told us. "We're something more than a call centre-we hope to be extensions of our clients' businesses." By extensions he means providing to the US-based clients of ServingMinds, the telemarketing or customer care functions so important to businesses overseas-answering questions about products and their availability, or queries about credit card balances and payment mechanisms. In Europe and more so in the US, these functions are either fully automated or performed by workers at a cost that is gradually becoming unaffordable. Which is why today more and more businesses are outsourcing these jobs to countries such as Nepal or India, where they can find fluent English-speakers.
ServingMinds, which is promoted by Mercantile Communications and its other Nepali joint venture partners, is now gearing up to take on its first overseas contract. The company has just finalised a deal with Endless Gateways Inc, an Arizona-based firm, to begin marketing time-share apartments for developers in Arizona and other parts of the United States. Here's how it will work. The roughly 100 Customer Service Officers (CSOs) at ServingMinds will make calls or respond to enquiries from prospective time-share customers, and then pass on orders to concerned sales offices in the United States-for a fee. That's just the most basic function ServingMinds performs-the centre is set up to work not just the phones, but also fax and email, interactive voice responses, like the automated menus that some offices in Kathamandu already have, help lines based on SMS, co-browsing, whereby the CSO and the customer can look at the same information at the same time, and video conferencing and, when the quality of Internet voice communication is satisfactory, even actually speaking to customers on Internet hotlines.
And though the CSOs are well compensated and work in a pretty fancy environment, the US firm would have to pay a much higher wage to its onshore workers, not to mention the benefits it would be required to hand out, such as medical insurance and retirement plans. It's just as easy to outsource the work, provided the company is assured it will be handled by trained, competent individuals. In the deal, this has become a new business venue for companies in Nepal that, with an initial investment in human resources and relatively common technology, can earn the country hard cash for quite some time.
John Soderberg, president of Endless Gateways, was in Kathmandu last month to make sure everything was in order. He was in for a surprise. "I came here with a certain notion of what I would be getting, but all my expectations have been exceeded," Soderberg told us. "We're in business now. " Besides hearing for himself that the CSOs spoke perfect English, Soderberg was also concerned that the officers handling Endless Gateways' business should have more than a passing knowledge of the history, cultures and lifestyles of Arizona, so they can conduct intelligent conversations with chatty customers, all the better to enthuse them about investing in a time-share property or a home there. "Some even reminded me about things in Arizona I had forgotten," Soderberg laughs in disbelief. "They're ready to make live calls."
Once the communications systems are linked, the agents sitting in cubicles in Thamel will begin chatting with potential buyers, telling them what's available and where. And, though they will be speaking with people 18,000 miles across the world, neither side will really feel the distance, and Endless Gateways' customers will doubtless be glad to be talking to human beings about an important decision like purchasing property, rather than interacting with the limited, generic solutions offered by impersonal voice prompts. "It is that human contact which we think makes all the difference," says Soderberg. "I think the opportunities for getting US businesses linked up with Nepal are endless."
When ServingMinds, which is planned with a $3 million investment, goes to full capacity, it will have 200 work-desks and about 800 people handling them in shifts, excluding support staff. It doesn't take long to set something like this up. "We already have the infrastructure needed to perform all customer care services western companies may want to outsource," says Sanjib Raj Bhandari, CEO of ServingMinds. Nepal has graduates with perfect English, who either already have or can be taught inter-personal and communication skills. The technology is neither obscure nor terribly expensive, and Nepal's burgeoning IT industry could help firms such as ServingMinds themselves, or with partners, offer other back-end customer care services. For instance, when in Kathmandu, Soderberg also realised that his firm needed software to track the management of contracts as they are signed. Within a week, Mercantile had it all worked out. Says Soderberg: "It would have taken longer and cost many times more back home. The quality of the work is comparable to, if not better than, that done by US companies."
ServingMinds is not the first business of this kind in Nepal, and chances are, it won't be the last. Raghu Shah, managing director of Sigma Computers set up Nepal's first call centre, Himalayan Telecommerce, about two years ago. "We're in the business of keeping educated Nepalis in Nepal, by providing them opportunities to explore the possibilities IT offers," Shah told us.
Sigma and Mercantile are also exploring the possibilities of offering such services domestically. Himalayan Telecommerce, for example, also runs a directory and information service, Ask Me, which has caught on fast with people tired of trying to call 197, Nepal Telecommunications Corporation's directory assistance and finding that often, operators simply don't answer the phone, let alone provide a telephone number.
At ServingMinds, meanwhile, there is a fully operational customer service help-line for Fair & Lovely, Nepal Lever's popular skin lightening cream. Intrigued at how CSOs would handle Nepali clients, we called in. "I have oily skin and want to know if the cream will suit me?" our caller asked. After basic name and address formalities, we were told the cream was made precisely for people with oily skin. "Yes," our caller got tough, "but doesn't the cream result in a flaky whiteness." In response, we got a simplified lesson on vitamins and skin care, and more usage information.
It would seem there is a local market for telephone customer service, though unfortunately the few businesses that have begun customer services and telemarketing-remember the unsolicited calls asking you to apply for a credit card-don't pay the type of money needed to train agents, and provide and maintain quality. Raj Bhandari says that locally generated business doesn't even cover the costs of keeping the centre running, and so his company, for one, will concentrate on the international contracts.