An Interview with Kencall’s Nicholas Nesbitt – Part 1
This week, I had the opportunity to interview Nicholas Nesbitt, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kencall, Kenya’s first and most successful international contact center. Kencall is focussed on providing world-class Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) services for East African and Global Clients through a broad range of offerings. Here is the first part of the interview:
What is your background prior to founding Kencall?
I finished my high school education in Kenya and then moved to America and stayed there for over 20 years. I did a Masters Degree in Engineering and later did an MBA. My career there was in consulting, business development, marketing, sales, and product management. I worked in the manufacturing sector and then went into telecommunications, where I worked for over 10 years before deciding to come back to Kenya. I was right at the beginning of the Internet in America. I came to see how it could transform businesses. We were trying to create the first online catalogs where we literally scanned printed catalogs page by page and then created PDF versions of 200 or 300 pages on web sites. It was way back in those early days.
In my last job in the US, I was the head of channels, i.e. third-party sales. I was in charge of everybody who was selling on our behalf worldwide. It was during that time that I got to see a call center in India and thought that if in 2001/2, if they could do it in India, which at that time an emerging market, we could certainly do it Kenya. I could see it happening right here in Kenya.
I was in America looking for an idea to bring to Kenya. So, finally when the Government changed in 2002, I realised that was the time to do it. So I came back to Kenya with a large number of ideas and decided that I would focus on one of them. The big idea was to create a new form of employment, and a new industry in Kenya and possibly make a decent amount of money for myself, and do what I wanted to do â€“ which was to bring lots of knowledge and transfer it to Kenya. To do this, I believed the best way to would be hands on, which is not by going to seminars, but rather by doing it, day in and day out. Basically, If you could transform the way people work, hundreds of them, if not thousands of them, you can begin to make a dramatic change in the culture that can lead to massive economic benefits. If we could do that, we would have a great outsourcing industry in Kenya and we could achieve our goals. Thatâ€™s how we started.
What challenges did you face in setting up Kencall?
The first major challenge was regulatory. We werenâ€™t allowed to do any communication over phone lines using a third party provider, we had to use Telkom Kenya and they would charge us US$ 48,000.00 per month for a 1 Megabit link. So, we had to convince the regulator to allow us to use a third party provider directly where we lowered our monthly bill to US$ 7,000.00. There we’re also no call centers in Kenya at the time. The telecommunications regulator had to invent a license for us. Then they said we would have to set-up in a the Export Processing Zones so that they could monitor our activities. So, regulatory issues were very difficult.
Another challenge we’re the technical issues because we were on a satellite link. We had to get specialized equipment to run the call center. It was very difficult to find the right equipment and the right people who could tune it. So, when we started, American clients were pissed off because of the noise, the echoes, and the internet was occasionally down, so we would lose clients.
The other challenge was legal. We signed contracts with sub-contractors in America or in England, and sometimes they didnâ€™t pay. They made us work for months then in the last month they stop returning your calls and then they stopped paying you altogether. Then you realize you canâ€™t pay salaries, you canâ€™t pay your bills. So, the legal issues of having to sign contracts with people abroad, was very challenging, as well as finding the right clients. Since I didnâ€™t have a reputation in this industry, I couldnâ€™t rely on my own name. Kencall was not a recognized brand name then, and Kenya was not a country that was recognized in the business, as well. So what we would get were briefcase people who would come and give business to us. And the briefcase people would come to us and say, you are going to work for me and then I will pay you once I get paid. We would then ask, â€œHow much are they going to pay you?â€ Then, they would say, â€˜Donâ€™t worry about how much they will pay me.â€™ The contract would say within seven days of receiving my money, we will pay you. How do you know when theyâ€™ll get paid?
Training was also a challenge. How do you get your employees trained to world class levels? There we’re no training institutes here, so we would import people from India, America, Canada, Britain, to come and train our people for us. Then another issue we had is where we are in our location and our building. Itâ€™s a nice building but in India and in the Philippines, their buildings look better than in Nairobi. Transportation was also an issue. Youâ€™ve to got to transport your employees home. Since there is no readily available transport to our location, you have to take people home – then, you run into security problems too. We pretty much got over all these issues – but itâ€™s been costly for us.