Archive for May, 2006


After more than five years of operations, Pilipinas Teleserv, Inc. is finally expanding its operations overseas. But the locally owned call center operator, which has anchored its business on Philippine-based clients, primarily the government, is not too keen on looking for foreign investors or expanding as rapidly as the bigger, foreign-owned players.

“In this business, it’s easy to make big mistakes. We don’t really need investors right now; our focus is still on providing honest-to-goodness service. We don’t need to keep up with them,” said Raffy David, Pilipinas Teleserv’s director for marketing and quality assurance, referring to other operators that continue to expand and ride on the call center boom in the Philippines.

Since it started in 2000, Pilipinas Teleserv has built a successful and sustainable business from providing 24/7 call center support and delivery services to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Statistics Office – the former for passport renewal and the latter for procurement of legal documents such as birth certificates.

The company also launched last November a one-stop clearance service for the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, which is meant for “balikbayan” Filipino overseas contract workers. In 2002, Pilipinas Teleserv branched out into providing call center support for delivery services of local food chains McDonald’s, Max’s Fried Chicken and Super Bowl of China.

This year, David said the company will focus on its recent expansion into third party verification or TPV services. Third party verification refers to a service outsourced by outbound telemarketing companies to validate customer sales completed over the phone. In the US, telemarketing companies in the US are required by law to use TPV services when selling products and services over the phone.

Last year, Pilipinas Teleserv the company bagged a TPV outsourcing deal with a US-based telemarketing firm, which also counts as the company’s first-ever client based outside of the Philippines. David said the demand for outsourced TPV services in the US is huge.

“I haven’t come across Indian companies that are into TPV,” he added, noting that TPV as a service is also relatively new for Philippine-based call center operators.

Bringing in results
In doing TPV, agents from a service provider like Pilipinas Teleserv simply listen to recorded telephone conversations and check whether the sale is valid or not, and make sure that all the required information was provided by the customer.

The service,however, does not end there. TPV acts as a sort of monitoring mechanism that evaluates how effective a telemarketing program is in bringing in results based on consummated sales. “We have a feedback program that generates comments on how a telemarketing can be improved by, for example, using (the word) “such” instead of “so”,” David described.

Since most companies in the US outsourced their telemarketing offshore to countries like the Philippines, these recorded conversations may actually involve Filipino call center agents. But as an independent TPV provider, David said a player like Pilipinas Teleserv has a “relationship” only with the principal client (or the one that outsources its telemarketing), not with the call center that provides the telemarketing service.

TPV is also meant to complement Pilipinas Teleserv’s current business. The company operates a 200-seat facility, located in Quiapo in the city of Manila, which employs around 320 agents that fill up three eight-hour shifts. “Our current services for DFA and NSO takes up mainly our dayshifts so TPV takes up our excess capacity atnight,” David said. “We knew we were too small to do outbound telemarketing ourselves.

And since TPV is not quota-driven like telemarketing, the requirement of the business is not that large in terms of manpower. For every 100 telemarketers, three or four agents can handle TPV, said David. Pilipinas Teleserv plans to hire at least 60 more agents this year to beef up its TPV unit as the company looks for more clients.

David added: “In telemarketing,there is someone else in the equation aside from the client and the service provider. We want (Pilipinas Teleserv) to be that “someone else”.

Closing the gap
Pilipinas Teleserv was founded by David along with business partners Jun Yupitun and Jeffrey Villanueva around the same time the call center industry was beginning its boom. The three studied together at De La Salle University. But instead of competing during that time with other call centers in getting clients from the US, the trio pursued Yupitun’s original idea of running a call center-based service for the National Statistics Office, realizing the then-tedious task of lining up for hours, even days, just to get a birth or a marriage certificate from the agency.

David, who later on pursued his master’s degree at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), crafted a business plan out of what was then a novel idea. “I had professors at AIM who wanted to to buy into the company but we decided to do it on our own,” he recalled.

Pilipinas Teleserv started with 16 seats, with two agents working on two shifts. The company now processes about 2,500 NSO applications every day. Applications can be done over the phone and payment is transacted through designated local banks.

The company also runs a similar service to the Foreign Affairs department that allows people to renew passports over the phone without having to apply for one physically. Last year, the delivery service was expanded\nfor first-time applicants who wish to have their passports delivered upon completion.

David said majority of users who tried these services learned about it through word-of-mouth. By applying the call center concept to a government setting, Pilipinas Teleserv is hoping to bridge the gap between efficient governance and public clamor.

“There is a huge gap between thekind of service government provides and the kind of service customers have come to expect from private companies,” he said.

The less gastronomically audacious would tend to shy away from curry either A) because of too much chili or B) because of olfactory reasons. But as the waitress at Hongkong’s Japanese Curry Shop BEE tells me, one can eat their curry every single day and still won’t smell even remotely like it.

Sounds like a good enough reason to try out something rather unusual and maybe bring a date along without too much aromatic considerations. After well-satisfied with the beef curry I ordered, I decided to ask the restaurant’s manager directly for an explanation. Surprisingly, she turned out to be someone I can relate to very well.

Levi Criste started Japanese Curry Shop BEE in 1995 and has been running it ever since. The restaurant now has three branches; staffed with Filipino waitresses and all located a few blocks from each other within Causeway Bay, which is on the upper east side of Hong Kong Island.

Unlike Indian curry, which carries very strong aroma, Levi tells me Japanese curry is not that spicy. Also, unlike the Indian or Malaysian kind, the Japanese do not use coconut milk. While she won’t tell me exactly the secret ingredients, Levi said they make their curry from chili, vegetables that they grind and apples. Yes, she said apple but I decided otherwise on asking why because at that point in our conversation, I was more interested about appearance.

“Our curry is brownish in color because it is continuously cooked over slow fire,” she explains. That makes Japanese curry, sauce-wise, a lot like say our own caldereta and as Levi adds with a smile, “Mas matagal, mas sumasarap. (The longer it is cooked, the better-tasting it becomes).” Of course, adobo stocked in glass jars or garapon, ideally “aged” in the ref for days, immediately comes to mind.

The curry fired up my taste buds alright but the kick was gradual and subtle, semi-sweet even, not hot enough to make me whistle and wipe trickles of perspiration off my forehead. The beef in my curry was soft and tender my teeth didn’t even need to chew on it with effort. My combo meal also included a bowl of piping hot Japanese ramen with tempura, which, interestingly, is made of breaded tiny shrimps, the kind used to make okoy.

My curry was also served with a siding of Japanese red pickles and the waitress obligingly gave me some more, much to my delight. I told Levi the pickles provided a balance to the spiciness of the curry. She praised me for noticing because, apparently, the pickles served its purpose in that mini-curry ecosystem in my plate.

Prior to setting up the business, Levi took up cooking lessons in Japan and her restaurant is now acknowledged to be the first one in Hong Kong to serve Japanese curry, a fact pointed out by the magazine article passers-by can readily see and read to whet up their excitement and corresponding appetites.

Of course, being a Japanese restaurant, the menu also contains staples like ramen, sushi, grilled entrees and donburi or rice toppings. Aside from beef, there is also chicken, seafood and even hamburger curry. Pork cutlet, says Levi, is the best seller. “People in Hong Kong want variety in their food,” she adds.

As for the curry, Levi, who speaks fluent Cantonese having found her busy taking delivery orders on the phone before our chitchat began, says patrons actually notice the difference. Perhaps not just the taste, but the long-term olfactory benefits as well.

Japanese Curry Shop BEE II is located at the Pak Sha Road in Causeway Bay, H.K. Levi says she plans to open a branch in Manila soon.

Remember to crane your neck upwards and be not afraid to ring doorbells. Good enough unsolicited advice for anyone who wants to check out what is arguably the hippest shopping destination in Hong Kong.

Now Hong Kong, arguably, is really just this one huge shopping mecca that happens to have a Disneyland just recently. But for those in the hunt for a so-hip-it-hurts experience, it pays to look beyond the glitter of shopping malls and take a casual stroll along the streets of Causeway Bay. Once again, look for signs that point to shops located in top floors.

A friend of mine, who’s been living in Hong Kong for years now, told me about how locals (or Hongkese, as he calls them) are fond of imitating the Japanese when it comes to fashion and all things uber-cool. True. Because the one thing I remember the most from my brief sojourn I can sum up it three words: A Bathing Ape.

For the unaware, A Bathing Ape is this trendy Japanese label owned by a guy named Nigo who looks like your typical hip-hop-loving, bling-wearing kid in baggy jeans. The brand caught fire in the States, thanks in part to entertainers like Jay-Z and Pharell Williams. It certainly is catching fire among Hongkong’s hip set. And it can certainly burn a hole in your pocket if you splurge on a pair of jeans worth no less than HK$500 (in peso terms, that’s about seven times as much).

Options abound, though. And the Japanese aesthetic – both in fashion and in the stores’ interior design – is no less evident in most of the local shops like this little shop I found in Mongkok that sells shirts emblazoned with Star Trek characters. Dusty (www.dusty.com.hk), located along the same area, is akin to A Bathing Ape’s retro sneakers and trucker hat vibe.

Anyone who’s into vintage stuff can scour through stores along Lockhart Road and Jaffe Road on the north side of the main thoroughfare Hennessy Road (sort of like our very own EDSA). I chanced upon Retrostone, a shop that stays true to its name with loads of vintage Levi’s and cowboy-inspired flannel shirts. I found the store’s attendant scribbling prices on a chalkboard. If this is Hongkong’s version of the ukay-ukay, it definitely is a lot more expensive.

Another interesting store I found was Underground, which sells, in no particular degree of conspicuousness, boots, bongs (yes, they’re proudly placed by the wall) and hard-to-find vinyl albums, mostly Japanese imports, of course. The mood here is definitely industrial-slash-punk; the store itself resembles an underground club complete with a DJ booth. The store sells original UK-made Underground footwear, including to-die-for boots (that would make DMs-wearing people green with envy) and creepers (those platform shoes that Bono wears. Remember that photo of him and Bush walking on the White House lawn? ).

Causeway is also home to surf and skate shops, especially the area around Lee Gardens. Which prompted me to ask this pretty lady manning a store called Island Wake, “Is there a like a beach in Hong Kong where people surf?” Apparently there is, and her store sells snowboarding equipment as well. Is there snow in Hong Kong?

Another shop called 8 Five 2 gave me some sort of epiphany about vintage jeans. After engaging the guy at the counter in a little banter about the ultra-expensive Evisus, Sevens and Levi’s I saw, his eyes lit up when I said I’m from the Philippines. “Dude, I heard it’s the best place to find vintage jeans aside from Bangkok!”. Ukay-ukay images began popping up like thought balloons.

The truth is, the only thing I was able to buy at Causeway are ten pieces of stickers (bargained at HK$20 with two freebies courtesy of the guy I chatted with at 8 Five 2) and this red shoelace that would go well with this pair of vintage Nike Air Force hi-tops I scored UK-style in Baguio. But hey, if I had more time I would have definitely seen a lot more interesting shops and hopefully, be able to buy more stuff. Especially that great-looking Captain Spock T-shirt.

If you get yourself a map, Causeway Bay is somewhere northeast of Hong Kong Island. To get there, hop aboard bus number 74, which will traverse Hennessy Road. Ring the bell and get off once you see Sogo mall. From there, just walk around the area for that so-hip-it-hurts shopping experience.