Fiji has it all for BPO | Founder sings praises of our natural qualities

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Vuvale Outsourcing executives left to right; operations manager Robert Smedley, director Fiji Sarika Singh, and founder Miles Blok at the opening of the new Outsource Fiji office in Garden City, Raiwai last month. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

Spontaneity, effortless friendliness and “naturally English speaking” may be things Fijians take for granted but in the business process outsourcing (BPO) business, these are nothing short of phenomenal.

“They’re absolutely a big asset and a significant point of difference for Fiji,” said Australian businessman Miles Blok, founder of Vuvale Outsourcing, a Suva based BPO subsidiary of BDE Group in Australia.

Mr Blok believes Fiji has all the right ingredients to become the next big name in the business globally.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for Fiji to become a focus point and an expert for outsourcing because there are other places that have started 10 years earlier, but the thing is the quality with Fiji is higher than any outsourcing place I’ve found in the world,” Mr Blok said, in an interview with The Fiji Times.

“The staff in Fiji are really friendly, really intelligent, they’re naturally English speaking. When you consider that just day to day in Fiji you’re speaking English — in business, in school, getting around town…so while there’s this rich culture here, people are actually really very plugged into the English-speaking world.

“And that, I think, is something very helpful in terms of being able to have quality because you’re natively speaking the same language as the customers. That’s people’s biggest frustration in working with Philippines, India, South America, all these places – the language barrier.

“So as Fiji grows their awareness in the world, and more people become aware of us as a destination, as long as we keep that quality going, there’s no reason for Fiji not to become a BPO hub.”

Mr Blok is no stranger to Fiji, having spent his honeymoon here a few years ago and he has since been a regular visitor with his family, gladly “mixing business with pleasure” as he puts it.

Also a co-founder of BDE Group, Mr Blok has been doing some BPO business with Greymouse Fiji for the past five years before incorporating Vuvale Outsourcing last year to focus specifically on Fiji as one of BDE Group’s BPO destinations.

Operations manager Robert Smedley – who divides his time between Australia, the UK and now Fiji – almost runs out of superlatives to echo his boss’ views.

“It’s a significant point of difference for Fiji in the BPO market,” he said.

“I know that in the UK, they’re dealing with one of the European or African countries for outsourcing and it’s the same issue. Whereas here, as Miles said, it’s that and also the friendly nature of the Fijian people, very friendly and very welcoming.

“You get someone like that on the phone, you want to speak to them. So it’s really very refreshing for Australians to get on the phone and speak to someone who speaks their language fluently and with natural friendliness,” Mr Smedley said.

Australian market That the famous Fijian hospitality, a pillar of success in the tourism sector, is now also doing its magic in the BPO space is simply a logical next step, according to Mr Blok.

“You guys are a happy, go-lucky country and the tourism background is a big asset for outsourcing because its become part of the culture — service and friendliness, happiness and this cheerfulness that the Fijian people are and the Fijian people share with the world when they come here as tourists, the same thing happens on the phone. That same cheerful ‘bula’ spirit as they say.”

In founding Vuvale Outsourcing, Mr Blok’s choice of name pays homage to the spirit of “family” (“vuvale” means “family” in the iTaukei language) that he believes is suitable to inculcate into the working culture in the Pacific when the target market is only a two-hour flight away.

“Another thing I love is that you guys are into rugby. That’s also an asset because we have something in common and there’s cultural similarities between Fiji and Australia.

“So when you think of other places that out source, they’re far away and their culture is completely different. Whereas we’re all this Pacific Island community, where cultures may be a little different here and there, but at the end of the day we all like to take it easy and be happy. It’s that same kind of down under spirit that’s also across the Pacific. And we understand it in Australia. And Fiji has just got it right. Australia has this ambition to take it easy, but Fiji has already nailed it,” Mr Blok said.

“So our teams are our vuvale and we also want our clients to have that experience, rather than it be something where outsourcing is a separate thing for them. We want it to be inclusive and in that vuvale spirit, where you feel you are welcoming people into, whether it’s a village or someone’s place, we want our clients to feel welcome here, that their business is welcome here and they, together with our staff, are our family. The concept is a perfect fit for us.”

Mass migration challenge The fledgling industry is growing against the backdrop of a major challenge — that of labour shortage. Of the roughly 8000 Fijians now working in Fiji’s BPO sector, which incidentally has slightly overtaken Fiji’s garment industry, once the golden goose of Fiji’s economy.

“Vuvale Outsourcing has around 40 staff, so yeah, it’s a small operation and we’re one of the smallest,” said Mr Blok.

“Tourism is very strong again so people are either going back to tourism or they’re going overseas.

“It has become harder to find people. Previously when we advertised for positions, we get many hundreds of applications. Now, we get just 10 or 20. So, we can still find people, but it’s getting harder because everybody is looking,” he said.

There are plans to grow the company to over 100 staff “quickly” but this may take longer to materialise, given Fiji’s labour challenges. There’s optimism however, that things will improve as they have since the early days of BPO’s inception in Fiji.

“Over the last five years, lots of things have been getting better and easier, whether it’s equipment, infrastructure, roads, etc,” said Mr Blok.

“So, things are getting better, the internet has been improving, we have a bit of way to go, but it’s improving.

“So that has made a big difference as well as partnership and support from the government — this Government and the last government. And great support from Investment Fiji as well.”

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