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Call center capital's under siege -- and that's okay

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

Is Tampa Bay's long and lovey honeymoon with the booming call center business coming to an end?

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area ruled the latter 1990s when it came to attracting new call centers.

In excess of 11,000 call center jobs were created here from 1997 through 1999. That's more than any other metro area during the same period and 2,000 jobs more than No. 2 Dallas-Fort Worth.

But did the Tampa Bay area overdose? Last year, led by such places as Baton Rouge, La., and Oklahoma City, four smaller metro areas attracted more call center jobs than mighty Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater.

The numbers ahead don't look good. Increasingly, second- and even third-tier locations will lure greater numbers of call center jobs once destined to land here.

Cause to panic? After all, the bay area's business recruiters obsessed for years on luring back-office and call center operations of big but distant companies.

Don't fret. There's a silver lining for the Tampa Bay area -- if we can stay smart, leverage all this call center experience and evolve to the next level of job creation. More on that later.

For now, like it or not, we still carry the unofficial title of the Southeast's Call Center Capital. Cubicles "R' Us. If It's Dinner Time, Tampa Bay Must Be Calling.

That's not quite the high-brow corporate image the bay area once hoped for.

And now even that reputation is coming under siege.

A study by New York's call center location specialist, Deloitte & Touche Fantus, says companies looking to establish successful call centers should consider picking sites in smaller metro areas.

"If companies enter these markets early enough and cultivate their reputation, call center organizations are finding that they can become the "Employer of Choice' in these small communities," says Andy Shapiro, the study's lead author and senior manager at Deloitte & Touche Fantus. The study found:

The recent share of new jobs that call center organizations have committed to smaller cities in North America has grown almost three-fold, from 4,655 in 1997 to more than 12,800 in 2000.

During this period, towns such as Stevens Point, Wis.; Marquette, Mich.; Durant, Okla.; Rockland, Maine; and Kamloops, British Columbia, reported large numbers of new call center jobs.

One of the hottest U.S. regions for new call centers is near the Mexico border, from Arizona to Texas. Thousands of new call center jobs will be created in places such as Pharr, Texas; Silver City, N.M.; and Sierra Vista, Ariz., by companies seeking access to one of the few remaining pools of available, low-cost labor in North America.

What does this mean to the Tampa Bay area?

First, the bay area is getting too competitive and too expensive for basic call center operations to set up shop here and expect to find plenty of cheap hires.

Second, the call center business is getting bigger and a lot more sophisticated. Companies are looking for geographic locations where there is a large base of experienced call center employees capable of moving up to more sophisticated -- and better paying -- opportunities that tie together work on the telephone, the Internet and e-mail.

And third, low-end call centers are most likely to be lured away from the bay area to smaller, lower-cost locations across the country.

Eventually, Deloitte's Shapiro predicts, these call centers will move overseas to such low-cost countries as India (where many people speak English). Already, Sun Microsystems, GE Capital and British Airways have established call centers in India to take advantage of cheaper labor.

Think textiles. The industry started in the North, moved to the South, then moved overseas. Call centers will follow a similar path.

Let them go.

The Tampa Bay area must shuck its fixation on volume call center jobs. It's time to start building on the expertise gained from years of call centers here.

"Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater has the ability to go up the food chain as business organizations look for more out of their call centers," Shapiro says.

Except at the most basic level, even the term call center is fading. "Contact centers" and "CRM (customer relationship management) centers" are more in vogue to reflect corporations' focus on using better technology to try to keep their best customers as happy as possible.

Sure, it's hard to imagine, but the young and foolish Tampa Bay market is maturing.

Shapiro, whose company consults Fortune 500 companies about where to place new call centers, says he will no longer recommend this area for simple centers (typically outbound telemarketers) that pay wages of only $9 or $10 an hour.

"That's not a bad thing," he says. "The last thing Tampa Bay wants is more low-skill, commodity call center jobs."

Shapiro's not blowing smoke.

It's no coincidence that the Tampa Bay area has seen a sharp influx of back-office and customer service centers from such leading financial companies as J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Capital One and USAA.

Several companies have just built elaborate campuses, complete with employee health clubs and convenient shopping services, for one very specific reason. They want to attract and keep top talent as jobs evolve from simple data entry to more demanding and multiple Internet-phone-e-mail skills of communicating and writing that pay $23,000 a year or more -- close to college graduate wages.

In the contest for high-end call centers, only a few metro areas can compete with the Tampa Bay area. Phoenix is one. So is Denver. Nashville, Tenn.; San Antonio, Texas; and Charlotte, N.C., are contenders, too.

Every metro area will have its bumps, especially with the economic slowdown. This month, struggling catalog retailer Fingerhut said it's cutting 950 positions and closing two call centers in Tampa. It's one of this area's biggest job losses in recent years. And they won't be the last call centers to shutter their doors.

Stay the course, Tampa Bay. It's time to start moving on up. Because another metro area is right behind.

When it comes to call center expertise, Shapiro says, "Tampa Bay is still ground zero."

- Contact Robert Trigaux at or (727) 893-8405.

Call center jobs

In the late 1990s, Tampa Bay dominated the call center scene . . .

Top 5 metro areas '97-'99 jobs added

Tampa Bay 11,060

Dallas-Fort Worth 8,880

Kansas City 8,730

Norfolk, Va. 8,480

Jacksonville 7,400

. . . but now more call center jobs head to smaller metro areas.

Top 5 metro areas 2000 jobs added

Baton Rouge, La. 4,500

Oklahoma City 3,717

Dallas-Fort Worth 3,600

McAllen, Texas 3,315

Tampa Bay 3,300

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