The Economic Developer's Perspective And Tips For Locating
Your Call Center
BY BOB GLOVER, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT SERVICES, INC.
It goes without saying that a search for a call center location is a search for a pool
of capable workers. I talked with Mickey Harbin, director of economic development for
BellSouth in Alabama, as I began preparation for writing this article. Mickey said that,
in his experience, there are five things that call centers and other back-office
operations need in order to get going - labor, labor, labor, a phone system and a
Jim Beatty, a telecommunications consultant for NASI (National Consulting Systems
International), works regularly with siting call centers and confirmed Harbin's
observations. Beatty has done some creative work in his search for locations for his
clients. He set me on a trail where I sniffed out successful locations that use military
spouses, college students, retirees, native Americans in their tribal settings and even
prison labor to get the job done.
The point I extracted from what Mickey and Jim indicated is that a search for
workers in a place with a telecommunications infrastructure that will meet the criteria
for starting up a new call center begins with a search for contacts who know the locations
under consideration. If you are at the stage of laying a plan of action for conducting a
site search, the first thing to consider is how to get the attention of contacts you will
want to call on for help.
Lets divide contacts into five groups:
- Friends in the business who have gone through what you are planning;
- Consultants with experience in location selection, including those who deal primarily
with finding and negotiating real estate deals;
- Economic development organizations in the area you are considering;
- Associations and publications that provide resources in support of site searches and
- Your telephone services provider who has a vested interest in seeing that you set up a
successful operation some providers even offer site location resources to their
Getting the attention of a business friend who will give advice and help you avoid some
wrong directions seems obvious, but it bears mentioning as a reminder because it is the
first place to start. If you are thinking about hiring a consultant, contact friends to
network your way to these individuals.
You may find your best advisors, including both friends and consultants, through an
association, but dont think strictly in terms of those that have as members people
who are involved in telecommunications only. Expand your association thinking to include
the likes of NAIOP (National Association of Industrial and Office Properties), IDRC
(International Development Research Council) or NACORE/International (National Association
of Corporate Real Estate Executives). NAIOPs membership is mostly comprised of
people in the real estate industry. IDRC and NACORE/International are made up of corporate
real estate executives. All of these organizations operate with local chapters across
Communities interested in attracting call centers and other back-office operations are
represented by economic developers who are sometimes paid practitioners, sometimes
volunteers. These are the people who know their communities best in terms of labor,
property availability, taxes and regulations and incentives. You should step into the
process of dealing with community economic developers and leaders by first contacting area
developers representing the places that interest you. Area developers are economic
developers that work for organizations representing multiple communities. Look to them to
provide you with information and to be your guide as you step down to the community level
and evaluate your options.
Since most economic development organizations provide free services to their prospects,
it is absolutely essential that you get their attention to gain their interest and
cooperation. You can accomplish this by organizing your plan of action around a set of
site selection criteria which spells out your needs for workers, a telecommunications
infrastructure, real estate and assistance. In my opinion, economic development is simply
the creation of jobs and the improvement of a local economy. Keep that in mind and realize
that you have the power to dangle a carrot in front of communities that are courting
Determining Your Needs
One of the most important elements of your plan should be your timeline for
making key decisions. Create your timeline and identify the points of decision that will
help you to ultimately make the right site selection choice.
I asked an area developer, Art James, manager of business development for the Oregon
Economic Development Department, how important he thinks it is to get the attention of
economic development organizations. He confirmed what I have written and added that when
Oregon is approached by a company or consultant with a location project, the information
exchange begins with a site selection questionnaire that helps the state understand
exactly what the company is looking for in a site. Site location questionnaires address
the must-have items workers, telecommunications infrastructure, real
estate as well those that would be a plus, such as public transportation and
pre-employment training incentives. Many area development organizations have site
selection questionnaires, but there is no standard format. My best advice is for you to
present your project criteria up front in your own format.
If developing site selection criteria is something that you are not familiar with, you
can visit http://www.sitelocationassistance.com
on the Web and access its starter kit. The kit contains various forms that have been made
up from a sampling of site selection questionnaires and is free of charge. If nothing
else, the forms will serve to guide you, but you can also print them directly from their
Web pages or cut and paste them to your word processor.
Consideration must be given to confidentiality at the outset of any plan for developing
new contacts and gathering information to help you make your critical decisions. If you
will be acting with discretion and withholding your identity, this must be decided
immediately. Those individuals you pay to help you, such as consultants, can be expected
to guard confidentiality and act with discretion, but your project team and those who help
without charging a fee might be a different matter.
Bear in mind that economic developers are supposed to be aggressive in going after
leads and prospects. If you broadcast the fact that you want information and assistance,
especially without defining your search area, you may find that you are inundated with
more promotional materials than you want and that you are on the receiving end of many
If you will be gathering general information about your area of interest for a period
of time before you actually start evaluating and choosing sites, one thing you can do is
to rent a post-office box, away from where you are located, and maintain it as a blind
address for the duration of the project.
Above all, dont broadcast your search project as a fishing expedition, just to
see who will offer deals or incentives. If your search is for low-cost labor, let area
development organizations know that up front. State and provincial agencies are always
under pressure to deliver prospects to small towns and more rural areas, and to enterprise
(development) zones. You may well find that you can get good workers, yet lower your
costs, in these places.
Although you may choose to conduct your search discreetly, you should reveal your
identity as soon as possible to the first layer of area development organizations that
offer to help you. Above all, let them know as much as you can about the positive job
creation and economic impact your project will have on the community you choose.
Expect economic developers to be creative in many instances. One project that comes to
mind as an example is a recent call center location in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Greg
Burkard, vice president for Global Business Development, Michigan Economic Development
Corporation, said the search project caught the attention of Native Americans there. To
secure needed jobs, the tribe in Sault Ste. Marie provided a training program for workers.
Finding A Building
Steve Kelly of the Business Recruitment Division of the Kansas Department of
Commerce and Housing says his state has several examples of creative deals in which
available buildings that were formally used in retail were put back into service as call
centers. Free-standing retail buildings and space in malls have been put to use by call
centers in Kansas. Steve told me about one case in which the call center operation sparked
the revitalization of a declining mall. No doubt the operator was a welcomed newcomer to
There are examples, also, of centers operating behind historic storefronts in the
original commercial centers of small towns. It is not unusual to find properties available
in such settings where the communities offer incentives for storefront restoration.
Courthouse squares with government operations intact are a good sign that a
telecommunications infrastructure is in place.
If you are interested in finding out about converting properties formerly used in
retail to call center use, you might wish to contact the International Council of Shopping
Centers. ICSC has a network of local chapters which encourage retailers, developers and
real estate people to meet regularly.
Locating A Labor Pool
There are a number of options to consider when venturing forth to recruit a labor
pool. Bruce Abraham, an economic developer who has worked with a number of call center
locations in the Atlanta area, told me that he has worked with neighborhood churches to
recruit workers. Finding churches that conduct job-transition ministries is not unusual.
Bruce reports that in the Atlanta market, one can find churches that conduct programs
ranging from training to networking. If a community has experienced a significant business
downsizing or closing, its churches may be especially primed to be cooperative in
recruiting and training workers.
Locating centers where college students and military spouses are available to the labor
pool was mentioned at the outset. Experienced site searchers in the business have tapped
such resources for years. To a lesser extent, they have tapped the human resources of
retirement communities and minimum-security prisons. These, also, may be options worth
In summary, any plan you make for locating a new call center begins with a set of
criteria for making a selection. Address your critical needs first, such as labor,
telecommunications and real estate. After those requirements have been determined, add the
things you want, but could get along without. Your plan should also include a schedule for
making key decisions.
Your timeline for making decisions obviously requires data input. Information may come
from friends and advisors you know and trust, but some of it should come from the locales
under consideration. You can tap data from these communities by letting them know that you
are considering locating a business that will create jobs in their areas. If you present
your project as something of value, chances are you will gain the cooperation you need and
a warm welcome in the community you choose.
Dont hesitate to consider creative ideas. Ive mentioned a few, but
communities that are hungry for economic development may well have something new up their
sleeves that will contribute favorably to your operations bottom line.
Bob Glover is the developer of .network, the Site Location Assistance Network, on
the Web. The Network includes a search engine that planners of new call centers can use to
find area development and community contacts worldwide. The search engine is available at http://www.FindMeHere.com. The Network also includes
a site selection directory, which announces search projects for communities and service
providers to review.