04 Mar ‘I didn’t expect the market to open so fast’

Written by Hans Hulst Published in Interviews Read 13773 times

U Htun Htun Naing, managing director Blue Ocean

U Htun Htun Naing in Blue Ocean's Yangon call center. Photo: Hans Hulst
U Htun Htun Naing in Blue Ocean's Yangon call center. Photo: Hans Hulst

Entrepeneur U Htun Htun Naing has been an information technology pioneer in Myanmar for nearly 15 years. His adventures in IT began in 2001 when he launched BEE Cyberland, a firm that focussed on animation and software development. In 2003 Etrade was born, a portal that provides information about commodity prices. U Htun Htun Naing’s big success story began in 2009 when he founded Blue Ocean, Myanmar’s leading call centre provider. Mizzima Weekly’s Hans Hulst spoke to U Htun Htun Naing about trail blazing in a frontier market and the growth potential for call centre services.

Blue ocean has experienced rapid growth. How was that achieved?

In 2009 I set up the company with an outlet in Yangon International Airport. At first we rented out SIM cards for $2 a day. This was a welcome service, as SIM cards were extremely costly at the time. In 2011 we started our call centre. From 100 people at first we really accelerated in 2013 and 2014 when the telecom giants came in. We have contracts with Telenor and MPT/KDDI. In total we employ 700 employees, of which 200 are part-timers.

We have two kinds of contracts. One is a contract in which a company outsources all customer calls to us. This is becoming more common now; local banks and insurance companies are starting to outsource their customer service. The other type is revenue sharing of value added services, like health care or fortune-telling text services. When news breaks, like in Laukkai, our team is on it, so we can offer up-to-date news via text
message and web.

Were you surprised by how quickly Blue ocean has grown?

When we started Blue Ocean in 2009 I expected the market to open one day, but I didn’t expect it to happen so fast. People in Myanmar don’t really understand the concept of a call centre yet. They think it is an inquiry service, they will ask questions. As they are not used to using the web, and internet speeds are low, there is a tendency to call us. They will call Blue Ocean to ask for the address of a restaurant, for example.

The call volumes are pretty intense. Regular customers will on average call our hotline once a week. This amounts to 30,000 calls a day. During peak hours sometimes we will only be able to answer 60 per cent of the incoming calls. Basically we need more people. It’s a volume game. Every time the call volume goes up, we can hire more people.

This month we secured a second location in Mandalay. We will launch in Myanmar’s second biggest city in late April or May.

Is this still a greenfield market or does Blue ocean face competition?

Well, there is some small scale competition. The Myanmar Economic Corporation [a military-run conglomerate] has started a call centre manned by perhaps 100 people.

The two main foreign telecom providers – Ooredoo and Telenor – faced many problems during the rollout of their networks last year. What effect did that have on calls to Blue ocean’s call centres?

What happened is that some telco people took it a little bit too lightly. The telecom providers probably underestimated the amount of red tape, paperwork and permits involved. Also, the customers had high expectations. When Ooredoo sold one million SIM cards on the first day [they went on the market] they were in trouble. They couldn’t back it up with enough infrastructure. Our client, Telenor, took the sensible route. They did it step by step; they started selling in the right quantities when the towers and the networks were ready. So the backlash was minimal.

Is it easy for Blue ocean to recruit staff with the right qualifications?

No, especially in Yangon it is hard to find the right people. There’s a lot of opportunities in the labour market here. That is we hire ‘fresh’ people and train them for two to four weeks. Also, we have 15 to 20 disabled employees working for us. This is part of our CSR program. Even with a limb missing you can work perfectly well in a call centre.

When Ooredoo set up their own call centre, they contacted some of our people. The market is clearly getting more competitive. We think retention is important. So we do whatever it takes to keep our staff happy. All staff members get equal treatment. We offer free lunches, free transportation and free medical services. We have our own clinic. It is working. A lot of our people are working with us for three years or over.

Blue ocean was the only Myanmar company to win one of the six ASEAN Business Awards last november. What did this achievement mean to you?

This is really valuable to us, of course. The jury of the Young Entrepreneur Award was quite professional; KPMG checked our background, corporate governance and financial statements. They also noted that we are ISO certified and part of the UN’s Global Compact. We are also rather active in Corporate Social Responsibility. That’s why we won another award, the ASEAN ICT award in the CSR category, for our Yangon-Nay Pyi Taw highway hotline.

What effect will increased connectivity have on the transition to democracy in Myanmar?

There is little government control now; no internet censorship. Information is flowing freely. Compared to the censorship under the former government, when, for instance, email traffic was monitored, this is a big step forwards.

But with this come certain responsibilities. I always say: control yourself in what you write. Social media are very popular in Myanmar nowadays. This can be good or bad. Facebook can be a platform for propaganda and abuse. I would like the government to regulate the internet a little bit more.

On the upside: mobile internet will be good for business and education. People in Myanmar spend three to four hours a day on the internet, but they are still learning to come to grips with digital media.

What’s the outlook for the call centre market?

I expect exponential local market growth. At the end of this year I think between 25 and 30 million Myanmar will have mobile phones. More subscribers means more calls. So Blue Ocean will need more facilities and capacity. For regular calls we charge K30 per minute, for special service we charge K100 a minute. Our revenue will grow. In 2014 our revenue increased by 50 per cent. This year we will see similar growth. After 2016 international companies will start to outsource their customer service to Myanmar call centres. Myanmar will become the new India or Philippines.

This Article first appeared in the February 26, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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