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September 1999

The Economic Developer's Perspective And Tips For Locating Your Call Center


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 building.

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.

Finding Assistance
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.

Let’s divide contacts into five groups:

  1. Friends in the business who have gone through what you are planning;
  2. Consultants with experience in location selection, including those who deal primarily with finding and negotiating real estate deals;
  3. Economic development organizations in the area you are considering;
  4. Associations and publications that provide resources in support of site searches and
  5. 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 clients.

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 don’t 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). NAIOP’s 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 North America.

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 economic development.

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 telephone calls.

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, don’t 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 the community.

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 considering.

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.

Don’t hesitate to consider creative ideas. I’ve 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.

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