Peter, a student, has just finished a call with a customer in Austin, Texas, who wired money to his son at a French university. The next call he picks up is from a German customer in Munich who is upset about a delay in his transaction. Maria, Peter’s colleague, is speaking on the phone in Italian to a field salesperson in a clinic in Milan, who has a problem with loading the latest pharmaceutical updates.

Peter, Maria and about a thousand of their colleagues who are taking calls from customers around the world are sitting in sunlit new facilities, facing snow-covered mountains, in a modern suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria. The staff are fluent in English and in at least one other western European language. They have almost no accent and an assertive, western European business style. They will earn a few hundred euros to supplement their student living.

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Low wage costs

A few hundred euros can go a long way in a student’s life in Bulgaria, which will join the EU in 2007. Average service sector wages are lower by a factor of five to six times than those of their co-workers in Belgium, according to a local call centre operator. Yet the professional attitude, language skills and customer service aptitude match or exceed the average peer in western Europe, where customer service jobs are low paid and unattractive.

“Customer relationship management (CRM) and business process outsourcing (BPO) providers have recently discovered Bulgaria as a near-shore facility base because we offer a business environment where rules and quality match the EU countries but costs are far lower,” says Pavel Ezekiev, head of the government’s InvestBulgaria Agency, which helps companies to settle in the country.

As FDI flows reached nearly 10% of GDP last year, attracted by Bulgaria’s talent base at competitive costs, many businesses have adopted a European or US business culture. Business is conducted in English, French or German across European restaurants and cafés in Sofia, which has more than a million inhabitants and a 50,000-strong student population.

IT engineering hub

Bulgaria has long prided itself on being a hub for software and hardware engineering, shown in its role as a prime supplier to Russian technologies in the 1980s. Today, SAP Labs runs one of its seven largest development teams in Sofia. Authorities are setting new software engineering curricula and shipping PCs to every high school to respond to market demands.

Simultaneously, the CRM and BPO industries are experiencing their own boom, growing from zero to nearly 1500 positions in just two years.

Rossen Plevneliev, general manager of Business Park Sofia (BPS) – which is home to the majority of these businesses – says: “Today BPS hosts seven call centres with over 1500 people and we are developing additional space for at least as many within the next 12 months,” he says. “We have over 160 companies, many of which work on a 3Mb connection to their head offices serving worldwide customers.”

High-value care

Peter Ryan, a London-based DataMonitor analyst who looks at central and eastern European markets, says: “There are excellent prospects for BPO across central and eastern Europe, and Bulgaria is no exception to this trend. Western investors from Europe and north America appreciate the ongoing emphasis of the Bulgarian government in the areas of commercial and language instruction. Bulgaria’s proximity to major Western commercial centres is also a real advantage for any company wishing to locate high-value customer care offshore.

“With an abundance of educated and multilingual prospective employees, Bulgaria is certain to continue to make inroads into global business process outsourcing.”

Being on the periphery of the EU, Bulgaria was not hit by the wave of corporate relocations that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic experienced in the late 1990s. As a result, wages have remained low compared with those in central Europe and the Economist Intelligence Unit expects wage growth of a moderate 3%-5% through to 2009.

Skills have outpaced earnings, according to Mrs Marcenac, CEO of Sofica, one of the first Bulgarian BPO providers. She handpicked her first employees with French fluency. She believes Sofica, which serves customers in utilities, banking and marketing, is better positioned than Indian BPO firms.

“My employees have no accent in English but they can also sell in German, French and Italian,” she says.

InvestBulgaria: www.investbg.government.bg

Business Park Sofia: www. businesspark-sofia.com