Scandinavia’s low Costa call centers

Nordic telemarketing firms are seeking to save money by setting up in Málaga

Swedish telemarketing firm Call4u employs young Swedes in Marbella.
Swedish telemarketing firm Call4u employs young Swedes in Marbella.Garcia-Santos

Swedish entrepreneur Kim Khazaal meets with his young, mainly blond team of telesales operatives every afternoon at 3pm to update them on the day’s progress. Anne Louise has just started, but has already notched up her first five sales, which the boss notes on the whiteboard. Her colleagues at the telephone sales center for Bingolotto, Sweden’s weekly lottery, applaud her efforts.

It’s November, but outside the offices of Call4U, it’s pleasantly warm, and people are strolling around in shirtsleeves – but then this is Marbella after all.

There are already around 15 Scandinavian call centers operating out of Spain: they employ Scandinavians, and their customers are Scandinavian. Most of the staffers are taking a gap year before beginning university, enjoying their last year of freedom prior to settling down to studies and a career. For their employers, who sell home security alarms, airline tickets, or resolve tax issues, Spain offers cheaper operating costs than at home. The digitalization of business and internet telephony has facilitated the relocation of tasks that do not require face-to-face contact or distribution of goods. Spain’s quality of life and its benign climate takes care of the rest.

One call center owner says the company saves around 25 percent on its wage bill by operating out of Spain

The mood in the Call4U offices is relaxed, and most of the team aren’t even wearing shoes, while the daughters of one employee are playing in a corner. Staff with children work mornings, the rest do the afternoon shifts.

“In Sweden, Call4U pays more than 50 percent of its employees’ social security; but here it’s just 26 percent,” says Khazaal. Call4U started out selling private pensions, moving on to the national lottery and book clubs because they took less training time. The company started out in 2008 and has 25 workers recruited from the Swedish employment office’s overseas posts department. This is how Åsa Jensen and her husband and three children ended up in Marbella a year ago. “I love living here, people are so nice,” she says. “The health service is excellent. In Sweden people don’t even bother saying hello in the elevator.” Jensen earns a basic salary of around €1,300 a month for a five-day, six-hour shift, which with commission averages out at around €2,000. It’s less than she’d be earning at home, but she says that the cost of living in Spain is lower, and the quality of life better. “We go to the beach, to the park … there are so many things you can do here for free,” says the 36-year-old. She is far and away the oldest person on the team.

Runway, another Swedish firm operating in nearby Benalmádena, is a much bigger operation than Call4U, employing around 150 callers in its 1,500-square-meter, two-story office. It handles ticket sales and staff rotas for Norwegian airlines, as well as providing outsourcing services for five other Scandinavian companies. Just up the road, in Fuengirola, around 150 Swedes handle customer sales for security firm Sector Alarm.

I love living here, people are so nice. In Sweden people don’t even bother saying hello in the elevator” Call4U employee Åsa Jensen

Daniel Selling runs One Contact, which operates out of Barcelona, selling cable television and handling appointments and queries for the Swedish vehicle inspection body. Most of the 150-strong workforce is aged around 23. Selling says the company saves around 25 percent on its wage bill by operating out of Spain. “The other advantages of working here are that people don’t mind staying late, because they know that bars are restaurants are open until all hours, not like in Sweden; the downside is the bureaucracy: we spend a fortune on notary publics and dealing with paperwork.”

The Swedish Trade Office in Spain says it has no figures on the number of Scandinavian companies operating here; neither does the Spanish-Swedish Chamber of Commerce, although it estimates that around seven percent of Swedish companies located here are call centers of one kind or another. It says recent surveys show that one of the main reasons Scandinavian companies relocate here is lower labor costs.

Selling believes that more and more Scandinavian companies will relocate to Spain in the coming years. “Salaries and rents are much lower in Spain,” he says.

One Swedish businessman says that many in the business community back home fear that the recently elected Socialist Party government will raise taxes, and this may encourage a further exodus to Spain: “This country is not the most efficient in the world. It’s not Germany, but the weather is bad in Sweden and it’s expensive,” he says.

Getting the right numbers

Internet telephony has opened up a wealth of possibilities for businesses looking for cheaper operating costs abroad. The cloud means that physical infrastructure is no longer necessary, making it possible for companies to be in five different countries and all connected in cyberspace.

It also means that an operative in Spain can call a customer in Sweden, and a Swedish number will appear on the customer’s phone. This is a key factor for many companies, which say that people are reticent to take calls from abroad, and much less likely to call back. Proximity, even if virtual, is an essential part of the customer-company relationship.

Tony Kauffer is the director of Megacall, a company that supplies call centers in Spain and around the world with equipment and software. The British national says there are around 20 Swedish companies on Málaga’s Costa del Sol, and that growing numbers of British property companies are setting up in Spain as well.

Kauffer’s company also buys millions of minutes of calls from six providers that he then sells to call centers. He also rents numbers in Sweden, Finland and Norway to companies based in Spain. In turn, these companies use answering services with the usual options of: “To speak to an operator press one, to speak to customer services press two…” etc, even though there is usually only one person taking all the calls: “It makes companies look bigger than they are,” says Kauffer.

But he warns that if the Costa del Sol wants to keep its overseas call centers, it will have to improve broadband infrastructure. “Connections are fine in Madrid and Barcelona: for €50 you can set up a call center, but in places like Fuengirola, unless you invest €1,000 minimum, you’re going nowhere. Many British companies have moved because of poor internet connections,” he says.

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