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October 1998

Back To Business In Northern Ireland


From beneath the rock outcropping known as Napoleon's Nose, at Belfast Castle, one can look out across the city that is hemmed in by mountains on one side and Belfast Lough on the other, and trace the growth of the city. Belfast, once called the "Athens of the North," is undergoing a renaissance. Like many major manufacturing cities in the world, the Great Depression of the 1930s struck hard, and the road to recovery has been a long and difficult one. Belfast is a city that was built on industry - first linen and tobacco, and then shipbuilding - whose wealth is evident from the many fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the city center.

The name of the city comes from Bal Feirste, which is translated into English as "the mouth of the Farset." But, symbolic of the industrious nature of its citizens, the city grew to cover it over: the Farset River can now only be found running beneath Donegall Square North and Chichester Street, its underground passage helping to undermine the Albert Memorial Clock Tower, giving it a tilt greater than Pisa's campanile.

The leading example of the industrial might of the city's past are the huge Harland & Wolff shipyards located on the channels that were cut in the area where the Lagan River empties into Belfast Lough. It was here that, among many other vessels, the great, luxurious ocean liners of the White Star Line, including the Titanic and her sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic, were built.

And now, once again buildings are going up in Belfast. For example, the area along the Lagan River is now being revitalized through development by the Laganside Corporation. Doug Garrett, marketing manager at Laganside, told me the Laganside Corporation is developing the area along the lines of the waterfront area in Baltimore, Maryland, combining shops, restaurants, markets, public facilities, offices and residential sites. Following the completion of the beautiful Belfast Waterfront Hall, office buildings are springing up in the former dockside area; chief among them are the 14-story British Telecom (BT) corporate headquarters building and the rambling new home of the Prudential, which, when I saw it, enscaffolded, looked like another great ship being prepared for launch at nearby Harland & Wolff. Harland & Wolff too, has not stood still: the great cranes at the shipyard, nicknamed "Samson" and "Goliath," as well as building ships are now lifting steel to workers constructing giant oil platforms that will soon be anchored above the great oil fields of the North Sea.

IDB Northern Ireland
Construction and hard work have long been part of the consciousness of the area. One of the earliest tales of building is the great myth of the giant, Finn McCool. The story goes that to reach his love, a giantess who lived in Scotland, he labored to construct the fabulous basalt-column formation on the north coast of County Antrim, now known as the Giant's Causeway. Unfortunately, this is only legend (the columns were formed by volcanic activity), but real construction is spreading throughout contemporary Northern Ireland, fostered in great part by the government's Industrial Development Board (IDB) for Northern Ireland.

The Call Centre Property Initiative
In 1997, the IDB embarked upon the Northern Ireland Call Centre Property Initiative, a plan of providing purpose-built facilities for high-tech businesses. These purpose-built facilities include Louisville House, Network Point, St. George's House, Ulster Science & Technology Park, Springvale Business Park, Antrim Business Park and Campsie Business Park.

I visited Springvale Business Park, which is five minutes' drive from Belfast city center, on an overcast Irish morning, accompanied by Michael Graham, principal valuation surveyor for the government's Valuation & Lands Agency. The Springvale Call Centre building is located just uphill from the recently opened facilities of Fujitsu and Emerson Electric, and commands a sweeping view of Belfast. The design of the building reflects Belfast's heritage as a seaport, with round support beams, reminiscent of masts holding up a sail-like roof, and rows of porthole windows that greet visitors at the door. Inside, an open floor plan maximizes the work area. Large windows and skylights provide light throughout the building, even on a cloudy day with the lights off. Divided into two levels, the building has elevated walkways over the central concourse, giving clear views over the entire work area and adding to the ship-like feeling of the building. The building has a total area of nearly 30,000 square feet and raised access computer flooring.

On the short drive northwest of Belfast to the city of Antrim, I was in the pleasant company of P.R. man extraordinaire and baker's son Paul McErlean. (I mention Paul because I found him to be typical of the people you will meet in Northern Ireland: well educated, hard working, easy to strike up a wide-ranging conversation with, and generous in quickly offering to buy a round when the day's work is done.) Antrim Business Park is indeed located in a park-like setting, with 20 sites, 12 completed and 6 available, located among 80 acres in a former forest nursery. The park has a range of well-sited, open-plan units that range from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet that can be extended to 30,000 feet and beyond. The open-plan layout and large windows are ideal for call center operations, bringing the peaceful setting outdoors in. Like the other sites in the IDB's Call Centre Property Initiative, Antrim Business Park offers very competitive lease and purchase options.

Fostering A Positive Business Climate
Purpose-built locations at competitive rates are only part of the IDB's "one-stop shopping" package. I was briefed on business development options the IDB offers by Trevor Killen, director - Network Services, International Marketing Division at the IDB. By working closely with the other branches of the Department of Economic Development, the Training & Employment Agency (T&EA) and the Industrial Research & Technology Unit (IR&T), the IDB offers: full advice and assistance in the planning and implementation phases of a project; ongoing technical and training support; structured aftercare; a comprehensive financial support package; and a continuing partnership aimed at developing businesses.

Among the assistance items offered by the IDB, IR&T and T&EA are: grants of up to 50 percent of eligible costs toward training; cash grants up to 50 percent for telecom, IT and other equipment; employment grants related to the number of newly created jobs; grants of up to 100 percent of rental costs for up to five years. The T&EA can also provide training needs assessment, free staff recruitment and free pre-employment training.

Killen stressed the fact that even though Northern Ireland offers among the lowest wage costs in Europe, the quality of the workers ranks among the highest in Europe. Not only does Northern Ireland possess the highest level of 17-19 year olds getting two A-level passes or more (the usual minimum standard for higher education) in the U.K., 35 percent, but it also can boast of a staff turnover rate of below 5 percent per annum, which is driven in part by unemployment levels currently between 7 and 8 percent, but also by a traditionally strong work ethic. There is also a large pool of multilingual speakers in the workforce, with German, French and Spanish being the most popular, but with most major European languages represented. Northern Ireland is also a member of the Eures Network, which is a pan-European network of employment experts that provides a constant exchange of job opportunities and information. In brief, if a potential employer in Northern Ireland needs more native-language speakers, they can quickly and easily be recruited and brought to Northern Ireland.

This solid "humanware" factor has helped fuel the creation of 1,500 call center jobs during the eight-month period between October 1997 and May 1998. A recent survey by Coopers & Lybrand found that fully 73 percent of current international companies now in Northern Ireland plan to reinvest.

Another advantage of Northern Ireland Killen pointed out to me is the telecommunications infrastructure. For an in-depth explanation of that infrastructure, I was introduced to the affable, seasoned telecom hand, Jim McCurley.

Jim McCurley, general manager operations, British Telecom Northern Ireland (BTNI), an affable, seasoned telecom hand, provided me "schematic" details of the state-of-the-art, resilient, digital network of BTNI, some of which are outlined below.

BTNI is part of the BT Plc Group, the national PTT for the U.K. While it has competition in Northern Ireland from Cable and Wireless, NTL Cabletel, AT&T, Worldcom and a range of small resellers, BTNI is by far the major telephony provider in Northern Ireland, delivering telephony services to 94 percent of the market, some 620,000 residential and business customers. BTNI is also the fourth-largest private sector employer in Northern Ireland, having a turnover of around 300 million and employing some 2,600 people.

BTNI operates a fully digital trunk, junction and exchange switching network. Through a joint venture with the Electricity Supply Board in the Republic of Ireland, network solutions can be delivered to the entire island.

BTNI endeavors to meet the needs of its customers in short timescales. It undertakes to deliver 2, 8, 34mb, etc., networks within 20 working days to any location, with liability to compensatory payments for failure to meet that deadline. It also undertakes to deliver SDH within 8 weeks (6 weeks delivery/2 weeks planning) with the added resilience of add/drop-in multiplexors. In short, BTNI can provide reliable network connections to a call center operation anywhere in Northern Ireland and back it up with the excellent quality of service.

Springvale Training Center
Springvale Training Ltd. operates the Springvale Training Center, located in a spot that was hard hit by the "Troubles" of the last quarter century, an area of high unemployment, Catholic West Belfast. Phillipa McShane, team leader, Business Services, showed me about the center. The Springvale Training Center building is a two-level structure that features a caf for the students, and large, "hands-on" classrooms for vocational training in various technical and engineering disciplines, but I was particularly interested in the area of call center training.

There are around 400 students now in the two-year tele-training program. Springvale tele-training students learn the details of the technology employed in teleservices, such as dialers, ACDs, etc., as well as how to use computer programs such as Word, Excel and Quark. The center has five dedicated circuits, ISDN lines and Internet access. The more advanced students have even progressed to creating their own Web pages. Beyond producing a competent and technically skilled workforce to supply the needs of companies locating in Northern Ireland, Springvale Training Center is providing hope for the future for its students.

Stream International
Derry, scenically located on the banks of the River Foyle in the northwest corner of Northern Ireland, has a history dating back some 1,400 years. It is a pretty town with city walls built by master masons from London in the seventeenth century, and since that time it has also been known as Londonderry. Stream International, a worldwide provider of outsourced technical support, opened operations in the pleasant surroundings of the IDB's Ulster Science & Technology Park in Derry in January 1996. The building itself is a two-story structure with video conferencing facilities, a central breakroom/dining area, and an advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

Kevin Houston, site director for Stream in Derry, provided me with background on Stream and its operations in Derry. Stream currently has around 200 employees in three separate call centers handling technical support for Hewlett-Packard, MSN in the U.K. and a major American computer manufacturer. On a tour of the facility, it was evident that the call centers Stream operates there were a hotbed of activity. Stream agents quickly and efficiently handled even the most difficult technical problems callers were presenting to them. I was impressed with both their technical expertise and their pleasant manner.

Houston said Stream chose Derry for a number of reasons, chief among them being location, labor costs, ongoing support from the IDB, a high-quality telecommunications technical infrastructure and perhaps most important, an excellent workforce. "The people here value jobs," said Houston. "They are committed, loyal and enthusiastic," he continued. "To put it simply, they are people with high education standards who want to work." Backing up his statement are a low turnover rate and the fact that Stream in Derry has handled well over 1.5 million calls in nearly 1,000 days of uninterrupted service. Houston told me that Stream handles 40,000 calls and over 3,000 e-mail requests a month for MSN alone. This speaks well for both the workforce and the telecommunications network in Northern Ireland. Houston said that the telecommunications network in Northern Ireland is so good that Stream controls its entire European network from the Derry location.

On the way back to Belfast from Londonderry, I persuaded Trevor Killen to take me along the beautiful Antrim coastline. On the drive, we passed a Du Pont plant Trevor informed me had been there for 38 years. In that 38 years, through the worst of the Troubles, it had only been shut down for half a day, and that was due to a labor dispute. (I must point out that Trevor Killen is not only a well-versed government official who has spent many years in the U.S., but also a raconteur who can weave tales of music, the political scene in Northern Ireland and of the contributions of the Scotch-Irish to American culture, especially, dear to my heart, Southern culture. If you get the chance to work with him, I can guarantee it will be a pleasant and enlightening experience.)

BT Apollo Call Centre
I met with David Gracie, PR and Comms for BT at the new BT call center on Apollo Road in Belfast. This new center, the sixth BT call center, opened on January 19th, a mere 90 working days after groundbreaking.

The large call center, which has a capacity of 750 agents, currently has 312 call advisors working two five-hour shifts. Its first campaign was calling the 400,000 BT residential customers in Northern Ireland, but the Apollo Call Centre soon branched out into working as an outsourcing partner for a variety of other corporations. Among the clients the BT Apollo Call Centre has are a major financial institution and a leading player in the travel and logistics sector.

In a typical campaign for BT Business Customers, a direct mail piece with a toll-free number will be mailed out describing the benefits of mobile phones, pagers or various BT network services. Incoming calls generated by the mailing piece will be answered in the center from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Ten days after the mail piece goes out, reps in the Apollo Road Centre will begin follow-up calling, generally with a penetration rate around 80 percent.

Agents receive an initial two-week training course for specific campaigns. Agents are then assigned to 12-member teams under a team leader. When on a call, agents are presented with onscreen scripts that help them with any possible upsells, cross-sells, objections or possible help requests. If a call escalates to the point an agent cannot handle, it is transferred to an online support team with a broader skills and applications set. Real-time statistics on campaigns are available for use by management for coaching or rewarding the agents, or to provide the clients with up-to-the-minute reports on how a campaign is faring.

Gracie had nothing but praise for the center's agents, and it was readily apparent why. Not only is the workforce well educated, but the relatively high unemployment rate has produced a workforce that is eager to work. Also, studies by BT judged the Northern Ireland accent to be the most persuasive in the U.K., and the call I listened in on led me to agree, as an uncertain caller was gently persuaded to add to her BT services by a friendly agent; she was so convincing, she had me ready to sign up even though I live in Connecticut. It's little wonder that in one outbound campaign, the center turned in an amazing performance of a 47 percent success rate in turning cold calls into firm business for BT.

The Prudential
Adrian Clements, manager, life claims at the Prudential Assurance Company, also praised the workforce he has hired at Prudential's 50-agent claim center, which is currently located just a stone's throw across Donegall Square from Belfast City Hall. (Prudential will be moving to its new location by the Lagan within the year, reaffirming a commitment to Belfast that has been in place since 1871.) Clements told me the claim center in Belfast handles claims for the whole of the U.K. The Belfast call center handles on average 1,600 calls a day from field agents and customers, which works out to around half a million life claims per year.

The claimants receive faster service through calling in to the call center than they would if they waited for a representative to call on them in person. The agents at Prudential must be deft, understanding and patient, as they are often dealing with grieving and sometimes distraught family members of the deceased. And they receive excellent treatment from the call center reps if the calls I listened in on are representative. Clements told me the callers often feel they are getting empathy from the agents, which helps make a difficult situation easier on all concerned.

To be able to give such good service, the agents are given six weeks of initial training, but there is continuous, ongoing training. Clements said that it takes a good 10 to 12 months before the agents are considered expert. The center has embarked upon training so that the agents will spend only part of their days on the phones. The goal is to eventually have them broaden their capabilities so that they can handle back-office responsibilities such as the payment of straightforward claims. The goal is to have the Belfast center take over part of the duties of the national call center that is now based in Reading, England. Broadening the agents' work skills follows Prudential's plan to help the agents develop a career, rather that just give them a job. This philosophy is reflected in the plans for the new building, which will provide space for 500 people, 40 percent of whom will be call-center-enabled. Typical of both the quality of the workforce in the area as well as the need for jobs in the area is the fact that a recent advertisement for 40 job positions received over 500 qualified applicants.

Prudential's ease of recruiting qualified workers seems typical of call center operations in Northern Ireland. The workforce is there. The government incentives are there. The telecommunications infrastructure is there. It is a land looking hopefully to the future (the people of Northern Ireland spoke eloquently for the future through the Good Friday Agreement and the historic "Yes" vote in the referendum that followed in May). You should look into a future there, too.


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