The Kenyan government has changed its BPO strategy, focusing on correcting inefficiencies in its services sector and technology infrastructure, after five years of international marketing failed to establish the country as a competitive outsourcing destination.

"We have simply changed strategy to first deal with internal efficiencies, which will lead to $5 billion in savings as well as develop enormous human resource capacity," said Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in the ministry of information and communication. "Building such capacity will also enable us to provide services to BPO areas we have always targeted."

In 2007, the Kenya ICT Board was launched with a mission to market the country as business process outsourcing capable of competing with African countries such as Mauritius, South Africa and Ghana. Now, however, the board has been forced to partner with established outsourcing companies in India to share or accept subcontracted work.

"Our initial failure to capture BPO business was largely due to the fact that by the time we were entering this space we were already late in building the infrastructure for the basic customer care voice-type operations; part of our problem was based on doing a copy cat business model," said John Waibochi, CEO of Virtual City Ltd.

The ICT board changed the marketing focus to include IT-enabled services such as software development but the promise that government and major corporations would outsource to local BPOs remained largely unfulfilled. The government is now preparing to start outsourcing services at the county level but Ndemo says inefficiencies have to be tackled first.

"We are looking forward to government outsourcing some services; it has taken us long to create the public private partnerships due to delays of the legal framework," added Ndemo. "In principle we are moving to locally outsourced services in order to improve on our internal efficiencies."

It was expected that large corporations and local government authorities would outsource non-essential services to local BPOs in the same model that South Africa adopted, where BPOs draw significant business locally.

"South Africa concentrated on building a strong local BPO business that fueled its growth to the extent that most corporates in the financial, retail, and insurance industries have a significant component of their customer interactions running on BPOs," said Waibochi. "What we haven't done is identify clearly what we do well, differently and are ahead of the pack and then build our BPO business around that for example; transcription, mobile apps, insurance policy processing, among other areas."

Telkom Kenya Orange is the only mobile service provider that outsourced customer care to Kencall, a local BPO. Safaricom handles services internally while Airtel outsourced its services to IBM, which also handles its Indian operations.

"Telkom has had great experience with outsourced call center service providers," said Angela Mumo, Telkom Kenya Orange chief corporate communications officer. "It requires specific systems to be able to properly queue the calls, route the calls to the proper skill, book the call properly and escalate the call to the correct back office team.

While Orange benefits from cost management because payment to the service provider is based on the number of calls made to the customer care line, Safaricom says that in-house call center services have helped it manage its brand and train call center agents to be brand ambassadors.

"In-house call centers create the opportunity to manage our customers better; having agents who are more committed to a consistent brand message creates  better advocates," said Nzioka Waita, Safaricom corporate affairs director.

While demanding shifts affect Safaricom agents, salary disputes within the BPO sector has led to a high level of turnover

and Orange has had to keep retraining agents at Kencall.

"The company is forced to continuously train new team members, followed by frequent refresher training to keep their product knowledge updated; the majority of the call center staff are only trained on customer service, which is proving to be a big challenge to our business because the complex nature of our broadband and data customers complaints," Mumo added.

For Safaricom, internal investment has allowed it to be more dynamic by adopting social media into customer service. Orange has followed suit, creating a separate social media team to handle queries internally.

"Safaricom's call center has moved to IP based infrastructure, which has been instrumental in understanding the true number of calls to the call center, creating a higher call handling capacity, and facilitating IVR -- Interactive Voice Response -- evolution to a more intelligent one, enhancing its capabilities to promote self service features," Waita said.

Meanwhile, the government is currently engaging with local companies to explore ways to improve government services tendering.

But even though the government is still viewed as a big potential outsourcing customer, Safaricom and Orange have shown that more training and specialization is needed in the sector, no matter who ends up being the client for BPO providers.