Security a concern as call center industry grows

MANAGUA—In small cubicles throughout the capital, more and more young Nicaraguans spend their days picking up phones and asking, “Hello, how may I help you?”

Over the past decade, thousands of bilingual Nicaraguans have cashed in on their language skills by getting desk jobs in what has quickly become one of the most desirable and fastest-growing industries in Nicaragua: call centers, or “contact centers” as some business process outsourcing (BPO) companies like to call themselves now as services have expanded from phone to online support.

The outsourcing of U.S. customer-service jobs to near-shore countries such as Nicaragua has led to a boon in office jobs in Nicaragua, employing more than 4,500 young people in recent years. The call centers have provided more than just steady work; the higher salaries have created the beginnings of a new and independent middleclass in a country with an enormous gap between the few rich and majority poor.

But with English-speaking deportees being hired alongside middleclass Managuas to staff the phones, customer security and identity theft are a constant concern in an industry that handles sensitive information from clients.

“Security is a constant battle,” says Paul Wheelock, facilities and project manager for the Accedo Technologies contact center. “People are sneaky. You can’t get too comfortable.”

Middleclass rising

Four major call centers—Accedo Technologies, Sitel, Stream Global Services and Almori BPO Services—as well as various smaller companies are providing thousands of new jobs that offer competitive salaries while respecting the country’s established working hours and labor laws. The jobs, according to employees, are stressful but rewarding.

“Jobs in Nicaragua are hard to get. Before, even people who spoke English could only find work in something like hotels,” says Ferdie Lou Prado, 31, who left her job in the real estate industry to take a job at the modern offices of Accedo Technologies, located on the outskirts of Managua. “Call centers have brought changes to the Nicaraguan lifestyle. The salary is good and now people can afford to pay for their studies to get ahead.”

Contact centers employ 4,500 Nicaraguans (photo/ Claire Luke)

Dubbed by some of its employees as “the Google of Nicaragua” for its glass exterior, shiny and sterile interior and call rooms with comfortable swivel chairs and painted walls, Accedo has the appearance of a first-world, high-tech business.

BPO companies like Accedo have expanded services to include answering emails, online chats, sales, web design, graphic design, accounting, and software development. Some companies are also now venturing into mobile devices.

Call center jobs also allow some employees to study at night. Accedo employee Norvin Javier Quintero, 28, says he spends the 48-hour work week answering 50 calls per day, and then studies economics at night.

“The job can be stressful, but there’s worse,” he says while playing fussball on one of his breaks in Accedo’s game room. “I could work for another company, but it wouldn’t pay as well.”

Salaries for Accedo and Sitel agents start at $500 per month, according to company representatives. That’s remarkably more attractive than the average Nicaraguan salary of $150 a month.

“This is absolutely creating a middleclass,” says Accedo’s Wheelock. “There are not a lot of barriers for entry, a very competitive salary, and top-notch working conditions. What would these people be doing if the industry didn’t boom ten years ago? There are not many jobs in Nicaragua and they’re hard to get.”

Dealing with stressed out customers

Employees cite stress as the main downside to call center jobs. But they say the level depends on the type of the account they handle. For example, answering calls from a frustrated bank customer is more stressful than helping an elderly woman sort out a retail order.

Edgard Mendieta, a former waiter who is now an agent at Sitel, says the trick to enduring the job is to not take customer grouchiness personally.

“In the end, the customer isn’t mad at me. They don’t even know me. They’re just mad about the service,” he says.

Mendieta tells customers his name is George because he says it’s easier for them. “Sometimes customers get mad just because they can’t pronounce your name,” he says.

Many agents say they find ways to amuse themselves in the job to keep things interesting. “I liked working for match.com; I thought it was funny,” said Juan Carlos Tenorio, 28, who left his teaching job for the call center industry and who now works for Accedo.

The companies serviced by Managua’s call centers include Target, Kohl’s, match.com, Capital One, VirginMobile, Sprint, Walmart, Choice Hotels, Careerbuilder, Medicaid and Medicare.

Most accounts require 24/7 service, and some agents work through the night on the graveyard shift.

Are hiring requirements too lax?

Applicants for a call center job at Accedo must be 18 years old, demonstrate proficiency in English, pass a credit and background check, and come clean on a drug test. But other call centers—especially the larger ones—are reportedly more lax in their hiring requirements, according to industry sources.

“I knew people who had been in the U.S. prison system for stealing vehicles, people who had assaulted other people. I actually knew someone who had stabbed another person, and a lot of people who had been involved in illegal drug activity in the U.S.,” a former call center employee who requested anonymity said of her former co-workers. “The most important part of the deal is if you can say ‘Yes, hello, thank you, and how may I help you?’ English is what they look for.”

Mark Budier, Sitel’s recruitment manager, refutes claims that his call center hires former convicts. He admits that call centers used to have looser requirements, but insists the industry has become much more competitive and secure in its hiring practices.

“Maybe seven to eight years ago there were more deportees who gave the industry a negative image. But deportee doesn’t always mean criminal. We have a lot of deportees or people who studied or lived in the U.S. and wanted to come home,” he said.

Since agents handle sensitive information such as credit card numbers and social security numbers, companies can’t risk hiring someone with a criminal background, Budier says.

“You don’t want to give your information to a felon,” he says. “There’s too much risk.”

Both Wheelock and Budier said there have been attempts to steal information, but no serious security breaches thanks to early detection.

To prevent fraud, agents are not allowed to bring pens, paper, hats, phones, laptops or cameras into the call rooms. They are checked for prohibited items at security checkpoints before entering the works space. All notices posted in the call rooms are laminated, and the environment is paperless.

An expanding industry

So far, Nicaragua’s call center industry appears like it’s here to stay.

The glimmer of call center jobs is attractive to many young Nicaraguans (photo/ Claire Luke)

Two new buildings are being built next to Accedo’s office to create a new “tech park,” as the industry continues to diversity and expand. Nicaragua, as a near-shore platform for U.S. BPO, is well positioned to maintain growth in the coming years, industry sources predict.

“We have cultural affinity to the U.S., proximity and our accent isn’t so bad. This has helped us to be more attractive than servicers in India or the Philippines,” says Budier, whose company is set to hire 1,000 new employees as it adds its tenth client. “Customers are happier to talk to us.”

Plus, Nicaraguans who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s during the war are returning to the country with language skills and able to find work in contact centers.

“The brain drain in the ’80s set us up well for this kind of growth,” Wheelock said.

Budier himself is an example of the upward mobility the industry offers young Nicaraguans.

“In 2008 I came back to Nicaragua with a degree from the U.S. and thought I would get a job, but I had trouble. I was hired at Sitel and thought this would be temporary, but I have made a career of it; I got promoted and am now the recruiting manager,” he says.

“In Nicaragua, salaries are very low or very high. Call centers have been able to provide that middle starting salary of $500. The change is drastic- Call centers have been a blessing.”

 

  • pacha

    Perhaps more interestingly it is pushing salaries up in other jobs. I run a mid size commercial operation and find it difficult to hire talent on the 10,000.00 to 12,000.00 C$ range. This used to be perfectly acceptable starting salaries for office staff. Often I am asking for more responsibility than the call centers who are happy to pay $ 500.00 in dollars starting salary. It is a challenge for me but it in general it’s positive for the country.

  • http://www.niggaornot.com Mark Gregas

    There’s not much that someone in Nicaragua can do with the credit card information that is usually transmitted via call centers. In Central America, there’s not much that once can do without a physical card. It’s unlikely that the a potential thief could remember all the information necessary to transmit the numbers to a gang in the USA who could make use of the data. They’d need the card number, expiration, billing zip code, and CVV number. The CVV isn’t usually available to the customer service representatives. Since this data sells for about $10 a card, they’d have to steal a bulk amount of them. So the only real fear is that someone could get their hands on the data and somehow get it out. The likelihood of this is about the same amount as someone breaking in remotely.

    As such, it’s not much of a worry for an ex drug dealer from the USA to be working in a call center. On the contrary, it gives them the opportunity to have a legitimate job and actually be considered middle to upper class in Nicaragua.

    Our business hires deported persons for various tasks and have never had much of a problem with them. Most of the crimes involved drug sales, getting into a fights (assault), or things young inner-city youths get in trouble for such as being in a stolen car (or stealing a car). That’s nothing that deserves a life sentence or that require constant supervision for the rest of their lives. People grow up.

    Because of the security the call centers implement, the risk is little. I hope they continue to hire deported persons and provide them with the opportunity to make a wage that’s decent for Central America.

  • Ken

    I like Pacha’s comment. I’m uncomfortable with call centers as the “good jobs” and also uncomfortable with a system that rewards those who happen to have US experience while implicitly penalizing Nicas who stayed in Nicaragua, but call centers are probably part of the synergy required to improve the job opportunities for everyone.

    On another note, I must have missed the introduction: I guess Claire is now a staff reporter? Great! Everything I’ve seen by Claire has been responsibly-written and good reporting, including this piece. Granted, she’s working with a pro (Tim), but she’s a good addition.

  • Randy Higgins

    I thought the headline misrepresented the article. There are security checks all along the way and one generally needs too much information than can be memorized or is available in a call center. I think a better headline would have been Opportunities expand for Young Nicaraguans. It is good that young Nicaraguans can find work to reward their efforts and education.

  • Sodamlow

    Hi, unfortunately I read the article to late but I found it very attractive to read.

    I´m proud to say that I work in a call center and have been in the business for 5 years now, I also want to add that thanks to this business I´ve been able to provide for my family. I´m a proud middle class hard working Nica, that just needed an opportunity that bias companies in Nicaragua didn´t want to hired because i didn´t have the proper last name.

    Unfortunately our beautiful country is just a small pueblo that if you don´t have the right last name or your not friends with whoever… well your chances of a good honest good paying job might as well be flushed down the drain.

    I wanted to add that I have an Telematics Engineering Degree that has been useless for the past 5 years… Because the companies that hired for this position want to pay a ridicules salary of C$7000 a month and the bag of responsibilities that comes with… I also proud to say and share that I make double number with other sets of responsibilities and a healthy working environment. I have a 9 year old daughter and the first thing that i taught her was to speak English I want my daughter to have a better education and more opportunities than I have.

    Hopefully in some distant future we Nica get rid of that stupid notion of promoting someone just because they have a nice last name or because he or she is best friends with God knows who and promote the people that have earn that right with hard work and sacrifice.