The foundations for the call center were laid in 2005 at the Turkish Consulate General in Chicago by then-Consul General Naci Koru, who is the current deputy foreign minister. The call center in Chicago was established to serve Turkish citizens living only in North America and Canada. When the consulate call center was well received, the ministry established another one in Ankara in 2007 to serve Turkish citizens living in Europe. At the very beginning of 2010, the two call centers were merged under one roof in Ankara to serve Turkish expats from every part of the world. The offices are currently next to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s building in Ankara’s Balgat district. It can be reached on 1 888 566 76 56 from Canada and the US and 0090 312 292 29 29 from the rest of the world.
The call center is staffed by 24 operators, also called “citizen representatives,” two directors and an officer from the ministry who work in shifts on a 24/7 basis. They are all well trained and have been subjected to an extensive security screening during the recruitment process. Those picked for the position first receive training in diction, information security and effective communication skills and then work as an intern at a Turkish consulate abroad to gain experience. After candidates become full time employees, the ministry continues to give periodical training on current issues.
Consular Information Services department head Esin Çakıl told Sunday’s Zaman that the call center for Consular Affairs serves people from all around the world and leaves no question unanswered.
“The majority of our overseas representative offices are affiliated with the Ankara-based call center for consular affairs. Our operators can answer questions in five languages. When they face a question outside their knowledge, they first ask for information from the team leaders, then from the Consular Information Systems department. If the operators are still unable to answer the question, they consult with related public institutions to find the answer and call the person who asked the question back within the same day. We answer a call in an average of two minutes,” Çakıl said, adding that they aim to provide a service in many other languages in the coming years.
“The great majority of calls come from Turkish expats in Germany. Some ask how the weather is in Ankara, when they learn that the call center is based in Ankara,” Çakıl said.
The majority of the questions concern consular affairs, including questions about military service, identity cards, visa procedures, marriage, retirement, citizenship and customs procedures.
Foreigners also call the center to ask whether they have to get a visa to travel to Turkey or how they can get one. Some people ask about the working hours of consulates, others ask for directions, said Çakıl. The call center staff tries to answer every kind of question from overseas, not just those concerning consular affairs.
Çakıl told Sunday’s Zaman that the call center has a key role in periods of crisis. “We are working in coordination with the crisis management center of the Foreign Ministry and forward crucial calls coming from crisis-ridden regions to this center. For example, a group of about 400 Turkish workers who were taken hostage last year in the middle of a Libyan desert by armed individuals were rescued after they notified the operators about the incident via the call center,” Çakıl said, adding that some of the operators were depressed due to the calls they received from Turkish citizens living in Libya where violence erupted between Libyan forces loyal to Muammer Gaddafi and rebels trying to oust him last year. “Some of the operators had to get psychological support following the Libyan crisis,” he said.
Çakıl recounted a number of interesting phone conversations between the operators and Turkish expats. A Turkish woman living in a Western European country reportedly said she was a newlywed and had heard her mother-in-law in Turkey was planning to visit her. The woman asked the operator how she could prevent her mother-in-law from obtaining a visa. In another case, a Turkish businessman called from Singapore during a business trip to ask the operators whether they could recommend a Turkish kebab shop in Singapore, as he could not eat the local food. A difficult question came from a Turkish expat living in Italy who called the center to ask whether tap water in Italy was safe to drink. In yet another case, an Azerbaijani poet called the center from Iran to share one of the poems he had written in Turkish. He reportedly asked the operator to correct the grammatical mistakes.