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University positioning itself to become national leader in call center industry

USM gearing up for Gulf South Call Center Conference

Hattiesburg — The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is already nationally known for its programs in polymer science, marine science and music. Now the university is developing another specialty as a resource center for the call center industry.

“What we are trying to do is add another specialty regionally, nationally and internationally, as well,” said Dr. David Butler, director of the USM International Development doctoral program and a leading expert on the call center industry. “This is very large industry for the U.S. Most medium to large companies have one or more call centers. These are solid middle-class jobs for a lot of communities. There is a lot of interest in having call centers, growing them and keeping them in the community.”

Butler is the author of “Bottom-Line Call Center Management: Creating a Culture of Accountability and Excellent Customer Service,” and has been quoted frequently in national financial publications and on radio and television programs. In May he did a 10-minute interview with National Public Radio, and a videotaped interview will run on CNN International later this month.

The outsourcing of call centers jobs overseas has been a concern and an issue in the presidential campaign. Butler said there is a debate about whether the cause of jobs being offshored is a matter of government policy, and whether companies can and should be blocked from moving offshore.

Butler’s research keeps track of trends in call centers jobs. He said offshoring of call center jobs is still an experiment.

“We have multiple trajectories going on simultaneously,” Butler said. “There are new call centers being formed domestically, and there are current call centers jobs that are being outsourced domestically and offshored to India, the Philippines and South Africa — the three hotspots right now. You have near shoring, moving to places like Ireland, Caribbean or Canada. And you have the repatriation of some of the call centers back to U.S. Some of the most recent ones include Delta Airlines and J.P. Morgan. Earlier major ones who came back include Dell Laptop and Capital One.”

Butler said the reality is that offshoring works for some industries but does not work as well for others. Manufacturing overseas is a matter of insuring the quality of the product. The customer usually cannot distinguish between a product made in the U.S. or oversees if the quality remains constant

“When you’re working with a call center, however, you are interacting with customers directly,” Butler said. “There is a general consensus right now that the quality of service is not as high in outsourced, offshore centers as it is in a domestic center. The cost can be lower at times, but not always. Quality has not always lived up to promises overseas in terms of customer feedback.”

It isn’t just language issues that are important, but the ability for call center employees to empathize with the customer on the other end of the line. Butler said for a company seeking problem resolution, it is important to have a person who can sympathize, as well as resolve the problem.

As part of the effort to position Southern Miss as a leading resource for call centers, the university is hosting a Gulf South Call Center Conference October 27-28 at the Southern Miss Gulf Park campus in Long Beach. The event originally planned in September was rescheduled after being cancelled due to Hurricane Ivan.

The theme of the conference is “Staying Competitive in a Globalizing Industry,” and it is being co-hosted by USM’s Center for International and Continuing Education and Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

“Dr. Butler’s efforts have made Southern Miss an invaluable resource for companies seeking to improve the quality of their customer service through their call center operations,” said Dr. Shelby Thames, the president of USM. “Dr. Butler’s work in the call center field is a prime example of the cutting-edge research and development being done in economic development at Southern Miss.”

Leland Speed, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said call center operations represent a tremendous potential for future economic growth in Mississippi.

“It is imperative we capitalize on the opportunities presented by this industry,” Speed said. “Mississippi has an advantage. Call center investment is moving into smaller metropolitan areas, second-tier markets. We offer the same key elements: available labor; low operating costs; access to a strong telecommunication infrastructure; and available space.”

Butler said the conference will be valuable to call center industry leaders desiring to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

“They can grow their business and meet their goals with the help of the University of Southern Mississippi,” Butler said. “Our goal is to not only professionalize, but also to raise the visibility of this industry and its importance to our global economy. The conference will provide the opportunity to disseminate research information that has been produced within the university in the last several years regarding the competitiveness of locales and regions for call centers, and the economic development associated with call centers. We want to share this information with people in attendance at the conference, and have them walk away with more information and to remain or become more competitive in this industry.”

During the conference, university officials will announce the formation of three entities at Southern Miss focusing on the call center industry:

• Information Incorporated, or I2, a Southern Miss Mississippi University Research Act company, will provide university-created products and services from academic research and transforming them into value-added products and services for the call center industry. I2 will take products and processes created at the university that are often never seen in the private sector and transform these products and processes into valuable and competitive tools for the industry. It will also be the medium through which Butler will interface with communities and companies on a one-on-one consulting basis.

LeadMark Services, a Nashville, Tenn., company providing call center services, will be the launch customer for Information Incorporated, according to Ross Edwards, founder of the company.

“When we say that we want to be an extension of our clients and to be part of their overall team, we mean that we will innovatively provide solutions for our clients,” said Edwards. “To that end, we have chosen to partner with Dr. David Butler and Information Incorporated. LeadMark will take the lead in the I2 program to set the pace and tone of call center excellence in the coming years. We are very excited about the opportunities that this partnership will provide for us, for I2 and for the industry overall.”

• The National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a nonprofit organization, will be the professional organization for the call center industry, ranging from small, 10-person centers to megacenters that employ as many as 2,000 representatives. The purpose of the organization is to promote the full call center industry, raise its visibility and value nationally, and lobby on its behalf.

Membership in NACC is expected to include equipment makers, vendors, outsource companies, consultants and anyone who is tied to the value chain of the industry, as well as those who lobby at the state and national levels on behalf of the industry.

• The Call Center Research Laboratory is being designed to serve the call center industry nationally and internationally by evaluating products in this industry, providing large-scale research and associated reports that will set the tone, tempo and trajectory of this valuable industry. “This will be the only research lab in the world dedicated to this industry,” Butler said.

For more information on this event, including registration and conference schedule details, call (601) 266-4186 or visit www.usm.edu/cice/ce/prodev/call/.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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