There has been a great deal of talk recently about the launch of third-generation (3G) mobile phone services in Hong Kong. With all four of the major local mobile operators expected to be in the 3G market later this year, it might be logical to think job seekers, especially those with backgrounds in sales and marketing or technology, could look forward to a whole range of new employment opportunities.
However, with financial reports indicating there will be plenty of red ink before the 3G licence holders start to turn a profit and with memories of the fallout from the dotcom bubble still fresh, those looking for a career in the telecommunications field may, perhaps, feel a degree of caution about how things will turn out.
There is, however, one sector of the telecom business that is dependable, profitable and still a major employer - the fixed-line services on which many of us still rely for most of our calls.
"We are expanding in the area of sales," says Tony Cheung, vice president, consumer market, and spokesman for Wharf T&T. "We have been unable to fill all available vacancies for the last 18 months. We have been trying to recruit continuously and, despite the high unemployment rate, are still looking for suitable candidates."
Wharf T&T, with an 11 percent share of the fixed-line market in Hong Kong, has enjoyed steady growth for three consecutive years, adding about 100,000 new lines annually since 2001 and recording solid increases in profit.
The company is recruiting on an almost daily basis to boost its sales force. Newcomers receive practical training during their initial probation period and are taught how to deal with customers, handle accounts and how to present themselves. They also learn about the intricacies of the business and of the market in general.
Once out in the field, their major duties are to secure new customers and manage existing accounts. They also act as an important source of feedback about client expectations and preferences and this assists the company in maintaining consistently high service standards. Sales performance is measured purely by the numbers of new lines installed and of accounts handled.
"We have various incentive schemes other than the basic salary and commission plan," Mr Cheung adds. "From time to time, we organise sales contests and offer extra bonuses as motivation for improved performance." The important thing for such schemes, says Mr Cheung, is that they are well-run and that successful staff get some additional recognition.
In a constantly competitive market, Wharf T&T is battling not only for customers but also for the best salespeople who are usually well aware of the terms on offer from rival companies within the industry.
"Our staff are given guidance for career planning," says Mr Cheung, adding that, "If sales personnel have the potential to become a good supervisor or manager, we do not hesitate to groom them for a managerial position." Performance and potential are used to assess candidates for promotion as well as interpersonal skills and the ability to lead a team. There is nothing to stop the most talented salespeople advancing quickly through the ranks.
The minimum qualification for a corporate salesperson at Wharf T&T is usually a university degree in any subject. Related work experience is not essential but candidates are expected to show they intend to build a long-term career in the telecommunications sector.
Those with higher academic qualifications are more likely to concentrate on sales to multinational corporations and will deal day-to-day with specialist IT engineers. Salespeople whose job is to target small and medium-sized enterprises are usually recruited separately and work as part of a different team.
Since the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) fully liberalised Hong Kong's fixed-line market in January 2003, several new players have obtained licences to operate as carriers.
Strictly speaking, there is no limit to the number of companies that can enter the market but, with the five current operators all intent on maintaining their share of the pie, competition will be tough. "The whole market could be described as in a constant state of war," Mr Cheung says.
Wharf T&T's own strategy for capturing a larger market share will depend mainly on offering enhanced services and value-added products such as SuperTone broadband, global conferencing, iFax and international roaming. The key business areas are in voice and secondary data and Mr Cheung thinks a stronger corporate brand, further reductions in costs and improved service platforms will pay dividends. With more sales representatives in the field, the company plans to install another 100,000 lines this year, bringing the total to over 500,000, and will continue to be an aggressive player.
"The competition will not go away. It is tough but has opened up a lot of opportunities for determined people in the sales profession," Mr Cheung states. A lesser number of engineering and customer service positions will also be filled in 2004.
With mainland China's WTO entry and the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) with Hong Kong gradually taking effect, there may also be future openings for job seekers and for the fixed-line telecom companies in mainland China and beyond.