“For customer service, please dial Turkey” may not be the official motto of German firms looking to slash costs by taking advantage of the lower labor costs offered abroad. But the growing number of German-speaking call centers in İstanbul, Antalya and Bodrum indicate that Turkey’s tens of thousands of former German residents may help make Turkey a customer service hub for Germany and the rest of Europe.
One of the thousands of Turks who currently provide customer service for German clients is Fatoş Yıldız, who lived in Germany with her parents until the age of 18. When she decided to get married and move with her husband to Turkey, Yıldız sought jobs at various firms where her bilingual skills could be put to use. For the past 10 months, Yıldız has been working as a customer service representative for one of Turkey’s largest customer service centers. She speaks an accentless Schwäbisch, German’s standard dialect, and clients in Germany often tell her they are relieved they haven’t been connected to a foreign customer service. They assume of foreign customer service, says Yıldız, that “they speak with a German that’s peculiar. Maybe they’re Turkish.” The encounter is a common one, says Yıldız, adding that customers rarely guess that she or her colleagues are anything but native Germans.
Yıldız’s experience speaks to Turkey’s growing bilingual labor pool, the result of a five-decade long tradition of Turkish immigration to Western Europe. Amid a European slowdown and Turkey’s continued economic momentum, the decision of some European Turks to return “home” has led to a new pool of fluent speakers in a broad selection of European languages. In May, a group of 50 Netherlands-based magazines awarded a contract to the Turkish wing of the customer service giant Unamic/HCN, who hired 250 Dutch-speaking employees to manage the service. The move underlines the competitive potential of Turkish call centers, whose service in a variety of Western European languages may prove a critical advantage over other “outsource” countries like India, which focus on almost exclusively on service in English.
According to call center Truva Group President Göksel Akkaş, one clear reason why Turkish call centers have gained popularity in recent years is the stark difference in wages offered in both countries. According to Akkaş, call center employees are paid TL 1,500 a month, or about 750 Euro. That is about equal to the unemployment insurance that is offered in Germany, and a low price to pay for a job that routinely extends over eight-hour shifts and requires extreme patience. Akkaş adds that in some cases, Turkish wages allow a company to hire labor in Turkey for about one fifth of the cost.
Industry struggles to recruit
While the promise of immense savings has allowed Turkish firms to acquire deals with German industry giants such as Lufthansa, Siemens and Neckermann, the lower pay provided to employees, says Akkaş, has meant that attracting the right workers is a challenge -- few would leave Germany for the job. “About 80 percent of customer service workers are women, who have come back because they have got married and returned to Turkey,” says Akkaş of the industry. The other usual story for customer service agents in Turkey is a visa or citizenship issue that has led to deportation. As the industry scrambles to open more centers, it doesn’t have any choice but to hire anyone who can speak German. “We’re forced to take anyone we can,” Akkaş remarked. The call center head adds that despite the difficulty, he is optimistic that he can expand his own company, which currently employs just seven customer service agents.
Besides hiring woes, the turnover for customer service agents is high, says customer service ageny Yıldız. “It’s extremely stressful. You’re required to always be polite. Even if they swear at you,” she says. The job was made even harder a few months ago, when several scammers posing as telemarketers told 600 Germans they had won a raffle for a car, stealing valuable personal information from them. The scandal was widely publicized, says Yıldız, and customers today are often extra suspicious of telemarketers. Nonetheless, she says, “it’s a good start for those who want to come back.”