Following the example of the burgeoning business process outsourcing industry in India, African entrepreneurs are in a stronger position than ever before to offer outsourced call center services to companies operating out of North America and Europe, according to industry insiders.

"Call centers present an important business process outsourcing (BPO) opportunity in many countries across Africa, thanks to Africa's new levels of connectivity and its central position on the global timelines," according to Christopher Bell, channel manager for Africa at the Interactive Intelligence Group, a global provider of software and services.

Gartner estimates that by the end of 2018, the BPO customer management contact center market will be worth around $42 billion, Bell said in email. "Countries such as South Africa and Kenya are already establishing BPO hubs with a view to capitalizing on this growth and creating new jobs in their regions," he said.

He added that in an era in which customers use multiple means to communicate, including instant messaging, video chat, email, Web-based self-service, social media and mobile messaging, "call centers are equipping themselves to interact with customers across a variety of channels."

Bell last week called for the creation of a call center association for Nigeria and other African countries as a way of promoting a standard for call centers, which, he said, have become the norm for private and public sector organizations in developed regions.

As the number of call centers in Africa grows, it is important for them to benchmark themselves against common standards and best practices, Bell said.

"As is the case in Europe and elsewhere, call center associations offer members a common platform for discussion, training and information sharing, a united front to address challenges, and a means to assess their performance against the best practices in the region," Bell said

Performance indicators they might assess include factors like call answering times, average time to resolution and customer satisfaction levels, he added.

Business development experts agree that the BPO market provides opportunities for African companies, though there are challenges. Though African call centers have improved their responsiveness, they are still not making the most of the potential opportunities in the BPO sector, said Ayo Ayeni, the head of business development at Media Bridge in Nigeria.

Company communication structures and a lack of staff training sometimes prevent the gathering and dissemination of the sort of information that can enhance call center services, Ayeni said, via LinkedIn. He explained that call centers enable public or private organizations run a two-way interaction with the market -- not only sharing information about products and services with customers but also gathering market information such as how customers feel about certain products and services.

In an increasingly competitive landscape, customer tolerance for delayed responses is waning, Ayeni said.

"For governments, call centers can assist citizens faster, reducing the workload and wait times in physical offices, and so cutting the costs of administration and serving citizens better," Ayeni said. "In the case of departments such as Revenue Services, call centers can improve the collection of revenues. There is an important role for call centers in sharing accurate information too, which is crucial for departments dealing with complex issues such as health, education, licensing and registration or import and export regulations, for example."

Ayeni thinks the call for an association is a good move but cautioned on the continental roll out. "Yes. That would help with standardization and serve as an help/information hub where members can pull their knowledge together to help each other," he said. "However, Africa is pretty large and needs differ so I would propose smaller units within Africa before centralizing the continent."

Despite the perceived challenges, Bell is adamant that the call center association is feasible as more call centers are "taking off phenomenally across Africa, presenting a great deal of new business potential and the ideal opportunity for the sector to organize itself."

Bell pointed out that in Zimbabwe, for example, the call center industry has proven to be a pioneer in this field, and has an established Call Centre Association of Zimbabwe (CCAZ), which provides an annual conference, as well as performance awards and training to develop the skills necessary for a world-class call center industry.

The CCAZ has been instrumental in the creation of a similar body in Zambia, and is willing to share its best experience and thought leadership with new associations across the continent, Bell noted. The key to success of call center associations is that they have to be driven by local industry, and their work has to be supportive rather than prescriptive, Bell said

"Large enterprises, particularly financial institutions and, in some cases, public sector organisations, are fast seeing the value of call centers across the continent," Bells said.

Call centers have become established businesses in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and organizations in Zambia, Kenya, Botswana and Nigeria are rolling out call centers at a rapid rate, Bell said. "Ethiopia has recently introduced legislation stating that financial institutions in the country must have call centers, so we are seeing strong uptake there too."