The call centre is dead. Long live the customer contact centre, geared to handle not just inbound and outbound calls, but web-enabled to handle real time responses via web site links, often using text messaging.
And where are these centres? They can just as easily be in Belfast as in the M25 belt. It's irrelevant to the consumer where the person on the other end of the line is based.
When Phil Clough, president of telemarketing giant Sitel, was due to fly from Baltimore to India one evening, he was caught up in traffic.
He rang to warn the airline that he would be late, and the phone was answered by a woman with a German accent. She asked what the weather was like, so he told her it was raining. It was only when she said it was fine in Germany that he realised her location.
'The customer is looking for a high level of competence, with somebody empowered to provide a solution,' says Clough. 'They are less concerned about a neutral accent.'
Caroline Worboys, group marketing director at Broadsystem is unconcerned about accents. The company has call centres throughout the country, including Bristol, Manchester and London 'If we had to launch again, I don't know whether we would change location. Bristol and Manchester tap a good skills base in the area, with people used to the environment,'she says.
To entice companies to their area, some regional authorities offer valuable grants to companies. But this can result in an overcrowded market, where staff can name their price.
'Merseyside is growing,' says Ian Davis, director of telecommerce at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). 'And Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol seem to be at saturation point. But if you are after a workforce that will stay, you can still find niche centres - places like Swansea, Cardiff or Belfast.'
Some operators are looking to a different solution. When TeleDynamics, part of the Taylor Nelson Sofres group, began to seek new office space to house a growing workforce, services director Julie Clifton claims to have been inundated with letters from local authorities around the country wanting her to move to their area - a big temptation given the level of government funding often involved.
But TeleDynamics decided to ask existing staff whether they would like to work from home, then advertised in a 30-mile radius around its Maidstone base. It now attracts staff from as far afield as Brighton and Essex.
'It is much cheaper to set somebody up at home than in the office because you lose the operating cost,' says Clifton. 'We have also seen improvements in productivity and reductions in sickness levels.'
So a London base is no longer a priority. Veena Pankhania, call centre manager at SR Communications, recently set up call centres in the outskirts of Leicester as an alternative to London. She says: 'I have found that there are certainly benefits regarding property, but the cost of equipment and services don't appear to show any regional variation.'
She adds that regional accents may once have presented a problem, as the public was used to hearing a 'Queen's English' accent on TV and radio, but this is changing.
'More important is that the operator is amiable and speaks clearly in a professional manner,' says Pankhania. 'This has contributed to the erosion of southern boundaries and a flood of businesses pushing north, where rent is cheaper and overheads can be considerably reduced.'
Keeping staff safe
Where location does have an impact, according to Paul Jackson, general manager at direct marketing agency MBO, is on staff security. 'Staff need to be near public transport and in an area that is not completely isolated,' he says. 'Due to the nature of the job, which often involves shift work, staff need to be in an area where a company values security.'
But Jackson agrees with Davis that an area can become too popular. 'Because Basildon is doing so well at the moment geographically, recruitment can be a problem,' he says. 'But the bigger problem is balancing staff levels with the volume of activity.'
External factors such as transport, security and cost of living do have an impact on a call centre's attraction to staff, but what do employees think of their surroundings? And would they be tempted, if the situation were right, to relocate to sunnier climes, such as Jamaica? 'It would be nice if we had a good view,' says Gina D'Auria, a customer adviser at Broadsystem. 'But it might add a holiday feel, and we are here to work.'
While employees take for granted suitable colour schemes, plants, and workstations that are conducive to efficient work, it's the little extras that stick in their minds.
Sufficient parking facilities, a good working atmosphere, air conditioning and comfortable desks and chairs matter more to them than an attractive location.
'Some companies even stop you mid-shift and give you physical exercises,' says Cherry Boarer, a senior adviser at Broadsystem. 'I was shocked the first time because nobody had warned me that it would happen. But the downside was that it was a bit rushed.'
What Boarer appreciates most about her current place of work are the ergonomically adjustable chairs. 'At some places,' she says, 'you can't adjust them, but here we were shown how the first day.'
Neck massages, a decent canteen and longer contracts are also thought of as bonuses. But an enticing view out of the window of palm trees swaying in the breeze? Best kept to a picture on the office wall, says D'Auria.
Sitel sets up in jamaica
Phil Clough, president of Sitel, is a happy man. Not only has he opened a customer contact centre in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, it has benefits in terms of cost and quality, too. The centre, in Jamaica's Montego Bay, has been operational since summer.
A tight labour market is prompting operators to look worldwide for new locations. 'About 3% of the US workforce works in a contact centre, in Europe it is 2%, and in the UK it is probably higher,' says Clough. 'The issue becomes where to go to get the appropriate people.'
The Caribbean has a large English-speaking population, a lot of the employment is seasonal, and people are eager to work. 'We can hire virtually right at the top of the labour pool with people keen to make a career of their job,' says Clough. 'The workforce is substantially more stable than similar ones in the US or the UK, so that leads to productivity enhancement.
'Instead of somebody having a tenure of eight to 19 months, if you can keep them for years, the quality of interaction will inevitably be better.'
In terms of cost, Clough believes that compared with the US, the minimum saving is likely to be 30%, and that is before resulting productivity improvement is taken into account.
'The important thing to bear in mind is that the strategy is for the company to offer a wide range of solutions to our clients,' he says. These can range from language or IT skills, to customer care solutions.
And Jamaica, like Sitel's new joint venture with Ta Ta International in India, expands that range.
AVERAGE CUSTOMER SERVICE ADVISER SALARIES
South West 14,000
Northern Ireland 12,600
North East 12,100
North West 12,000
Source: Incomes Data Services