Scottish Development International: Play the long game

With a steady stream of foreign direct investments, Scotland's BPO sector is in rude health, but what gives the country its competitive advantage? Low costs, a highly skilled and diligent workforce, and proactive support network, says Mark McMullen, manager of financial services and BPO at Scottish Development International.

The business process outsourcing (BPO) sector continues to play a prominent part in Scotland's economy. At the time of writing, 90,000 people are employed in 400 contact centres located across the country, constituting roughly 4% of its population. Predominantly concerned with the financial services industry, not to mention media and communications, telecoms and utilities, a growing number of international players - including IBM, Capgemini and Sykes Enterprises - have singled out Scotland as a location conducive to their flexible business needs.
Complementing a ready supply of city-centre properties and business-park locations able to house contact and sharedservice centres, Scotland's workforce has long been renowned for its diversity, vocational quality and linguistic skills: according to the General Register Office for Scotland, over 15% of centres provide dedicated foreign-language services. According to Mark McMullen, manager of financial services and BPO at Scottish Development International (SDI), the country's government-affiliated foreign trade and investment-promotion agency, this combination is proving to be the major incentive for companies looking to outsource their operations.
"The BPO sector continues to grow as a direct result of companies being attracted to our highly skilled workforce, which is well versed in handling the demands of operating a contact centre," he says. "Added to that, people are attracted to working in this sector: they no longer see it as just a job; rather, they see it as a career in which they can progress." In order to support the country's long-standing academic credentials - it has almost 300,000 students studying at any time for a higher education qualification - the Scottish Government places significant emphasis on investing in human capital, namely funding vocational courses.

An active professional support network

The Customer Contact Association, the global body for contact centre operations, is based in Glasgow, while plenty of local colleges offer an array of modules designed to arm employees with the requisite critical functions and transactional skills demanded by companies.
"Today, there is a lot of bespoke training on offer," says McMullen. "Whether it's around improving keyboard skills, telephone manner or customer service in general, these courses cater to a wide range of employment opportunities. Furthermore, SDI can subsidise some of these costs." Bolstered by this active professional support network, the Scottish BPO sector currently generates a turnover in the region of £10 billion. Such figures only go to highlight the low-risk cost benefits companies can reap by investing in Scotland over its competitors and other emerging outsourcing locations.
"It boils down to track record," says McMullen.
"Companies would not be here, or willing to expand in Scotland, if they didn't believe they could attain cost efficiency and real profitability. As contact centres continue to develop and mature, I think we are going to see them add even greater value to operations."
Looking to the future, Scotland's BPO love affair doesn't seem set to abate any time soon. With a proven and globally recognised business environment, it is also home to one of the lowest tax rates in the European Union, as well as flexible labour regulations, and McMullen is sanguine that an increasing number of companies will follow suit and move to Scotland with the long game in mind.
"There is a vibrant supporting infrastructure in place, which allows for the expansion we are currently seeing," he says. "This in itself is a very powerful message to companies that are thinking of relocating here. They don't come for the quick fix either; they come here for the long term, with the aim of becoming part of the local community, improving their operations, and, most of all, achieving profitability."

Glasgow: now home to the global Customer Contact Association.