Amazon's announcement this week that it plans to hire 3,000 people in its South African customer service division provided a powerful boost for the country's credentials in an industry known as business process outsourcing (BPO).

The highly competitive global market for contact centre services allows major corporations to respond to customers around the clock by having shifts working across all time zones.

Amazon began advertising a month ago for a customer service operations manager, who will be responsible for the direction, co-ordination, quality and productivity of a "South Africa Virtual Customer Service work-from-home team".

At the time, it was envisaged that the successful candidate would oversee six group managers and 500 "customer service associates" for work-from-home customer service. The scope of the hiring has now been expanded sixfold.

An Amazon spokesperson told Business Times on Friday: "Amazon has a long history in South Africa. We opened our Customer Service Centre in Cape Town 10 years ago, and the team has been delivering industry-leading customer service to customers around the globe ever since.

"We're excited to continue investing in South Africa and to bring our permanent headcount in the country to 7,000."

The foundation for Amazon Web Services, the world's leading cloud computing service, was developed in Cape Town in the early 2000s, and the city still hosts one of the company's core development centres. It employs more than 3,000 software engineers.

The new hiring spree began a few days after a report was issued by Ryan Strategic Advisory, a consultancy on contact centre and BPO services, naming SA the world's second-most desirable offshore customer service delivery site, for the third year in a row.

Last year SA shared second position with India, and ranked below the Philippines. Both India and SA moved ahead of the Philippines this year, but SA was edged out in the vote by 540 enterprise contact centre buyers from Western Europe, Australia and North America who plumped for India.

Sector boosts itself

The choice of that country as the "most favoured delivery point" from among about 50 jurisdictions around the world highlights SA's main disadvantage: the slow embrace of digital transformation.

Ryan Advisory found that "in the recent past, providers based in India have focused heavily on driving quality interactions with the right investments in people, processes and technology. In fact, India has become almost synonymous with the growth of digital, non-voice delivery, an increasingly popular channel choice among consumers."

Given the South African government's intransigence in providing an enabling environment for digital services, the local BPO industry took matters into its own hands to boost the sector, led by a nonprofit body, Business Process Enabling SA (BPESA).

Ryan Advisory reported: "Outsourcers in South Africa, along with the industry representative body (BPESA), have been possibly the most aggressive stakeholders of any country in the offshoring game in regards to investment promotion over the past 12-18 months.

"These efforts have included multiple delegations to Australia, the UK and North America. These initiatives are bearing fruit, as witnessed in this year's ranking."

The vigorous efforts by private connectivity infrastructure companies like Vumatel, Frogfoot, MetroFibre and Cybersmart to roll out fibre-to-the-home connectivity has also delivered a major dividend: a work-from-home capability that feeds directly into a new trend in BPO.

The opening qualification for applicants who want to join Amazon's Virtual Customer Service is an "existing and dedicated 10MB uncapped fibre line".

LTE lines and Wi-Fi connections are not eligible for this role.

Beyond that, the opportunity is a potential windfall for unemployed South Africans unable to find work due to lockdown.

The only educational requirement is a completed NQF level 4 qualification, equivalent to matric, or higher, and the only work qualification is three months of job experience in any environment. It also requires a good command of verbal and written English, typing, phone and computer skills and the ability to navigate the internet and e-mail and to chat to customers via Instant Messenger tools.