Outsourcing Call Center Jobs To India Leads To Bad Customer Service
Published 7/31/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
We live in an extremely politically correct country these days, which means anyone who even mentions anything negative about someone different (like negatively pointing out a foreign accent), or criticizes someone for their inability to speak the language properly, he or she is immediately labeled as prejudiced, racist, or somehow inciting hateful views. I'm truly none of those things, but I feel a personal finance blog platform is as good as any to express my own personal views about my own experiences on the matter. While I was born overseas, I came to the U.S. when I was only 2-3 years old, so I've pretty much grown up as an American and learned to identify strongly with the crux of American culture and its values. While a key component of American culture is the ability to embrace diversity and appreciate differences between different types of people, both foreign and domestic, there are some circumstances when I greatly prefer the services of a fellow American.
This preferential situation comes up whenever I call a live customer service help line. When I pick up the phone and make that affirmative decision to seek help via a toll free telephone number, my reasonable expectation is that I will reach someone who can communicate with me in an intelligible way, and help me resolve my consumer business problem quickly and efficiently, so that I can go along my merry way. It's bad enough that I often have to spend 30 minutes or more waiting on hold before I can talk to a live technical support representative, but these days, it seems when I finally reach that live person, he or she turns out to be completely unable to communicate with me using comprehensible and discernible English.
I Can Deal With Difficult To Understand Accents In Real Life (By Using Hand Gestures), But When The Situations Happen Over The Phone, The Conversations Can Get Comically Tedious
I am terrible when it comes to understanding different accents. Even British English accents trip me up on occasion - but at least it is somewhat closer to American English in terms of speech and pronunciation, albeit a bit more deliberately pronounced I suppose. While I can understand the different types of American English accents such as a southern, Boston, and even accents that distinguish different races and ethnic groups prominent in this country, I still have frequent difficulty understanding the cultural nuances and accents that aren't considered mainstream American English. This difficulty in understanding foreign accents is most pronounced and debilitating when it comes to conversations over the phone with someone from another land, especially when I find my phone call re-routed to some outsourced call center located overseas and wind up with a customer service rep who speaks with a thick accent that I simply cannot understand despite my best efforts.
While in a real life conversation and business work setting, heavy accents aren't as significant a detriment as there are other methods of communication such as using writing and through natural hand gestures to punctuate one's point, in the world of customer service telephone calls, this type of linguistic verbal diversity is a significant detriment and handicap. When it comes to customer and technical support help lines, communication and speed are two important elements to a quick and satisfactory resolution of the problem at hand. There are plenty of jobs where having a perfect American English accent is not crucial and one can get away with not having otherwise perfect American English, but a position as a customer service call representative that caters to Americans is not one of them. The job absolutely demands that the agent be able to communicate with the language of the target country. Is that really too much to ask? Oftentimes in such scenarios, time and patience are limited luxuries. In such situations, having a thick accent is a very undesired handicap to have, particularly when the issue needs to get resolved quickly over the phone in a short period of time without the benefit of time to get to know each other. This is the biggest problem many customers such as myself are having with companies that continue to outsource their customer service call center jobs overseas to English speaking, but heavily accented countries like India.
Facing An Indian Customer Service Representative With An Incredibly Thick Accent Is Like Talking To A Brick Wall - Nothing Gets Through, and Time Is Wasted
When American call center customer service jobs are outsourced to other countries, I think it's reasonable to expect the call agents that will be handling the calls to be trained to speak in proper America English. However that is not always the case. Especially when it comes to Indian call centers, the accent is often an interesting mish mash of British English, local Indian dialect, and butchered American English. What often comes out is an unintelligible murmur, resulting in humorous and frequently embarrassing exchanges between the rep and the customer.
A few years ago, I bought a Linksys wireless Internet router, but had major trouble setting up my wireless connection. I kept losing my wireless internet signal and so I embarked on a customer service phone call quest to solve the problem. I dialed the company's 1-800 number and was promptly connected to an agent. Little did I know, but my call from Maryland, USA was instantly routed thousands of miles across the planet to a different time zone to a call center in India. Immediately when I heard the agent's accent, I knew it was going to be a long day. It started as soon as my phone rep introduced herself with a thick Indian accented "Hello"...followed by a ..."my name is Mary", a presumably English name moniker chosen by the Indian customer service rep for the convenience sake of their mostly American clientele instead of compelling them to remember a more difficult Indian name. For the next 60 minutes, I struggled valiantly to understand her words and sentences. I tried to remain polite and understanding, but I kept asking her to please repeat herself, much to my continued embarrassment. Every sentence on her part would be followed by a "What?" on my end, or would be followed by a momentary pause as I scratched my head and tried to figure out what she was trying to tell me.
After a while, I could tell she was getting fed up with having to repeat herself after every instruction, but then what was I supposed to do? I desperately tried to understand, and I really did try - but it was a constant guessing game on my end. I simply could not comprehend the Indian customer service representative's thick Indian English accent. At the end, I got little accomplished because she and I were simply unable to communicate. I found myself spending more than an hour repeating her own words back in my vain attempt to make some linguistic sense. Eventually I had to give up and seek help from another customer service rep. The next rep's Indian accent was just as thick and I ultimately had to call back several times before I finally found an agent who's accent was more bearable. But the experience left me with a very negative view of the company and their irresponsible cost cutting efforts to send customer service jobs overseas when the work could be better handled here.
American Companies Who Cater To American Consumers Should Seriously Re-Consider Their Indian Outsourcing Strategy Or Face Consumer Backlash In The Long Run
This is a serious problem that many major American companies who choose to outsource their call center jobs to low cost foreign countries will ultimately have to face. Customers such as myself may eventually take our customer service frustration out on the company and defect to one of their competitors. Based on some news reports I've read, many companies that have attempted to outsource their customer service functions abroad have not realized the cost savings they expected, discovering that there are hidden costs that far outweighed the potential savings in labor expenses. Oftentimes, due to significant customer complaints about difficult to understand customer service representative accents and great differences in culture, companies have had to expend significant amounts of additional money to train the agents on proper American English and terminology. Ultimately some of these outsourcers have brought those type of jobs back in-house and back into the country.
Faced with backlash from customers like myself who have great difficulty understanding heavily accented Indian English, some companies are actually taking the next logical alternative step by shipping the work over to other moderately English speaking countries, like the Philippines. As a former U.S. controlled territory, the Philippines at least offers a more Americanized work force with a better understanding of American culture that can potentially offer employees with lighter accents. There will still be an annoying accent to deal with, but at least the twang, so to speak, will be significantly less painful to understand than that spoken in India.
There are currently also signs that the trend toward outsourcing call center jobs to low-wage countries like India or even the Philippines may be slowing down. Research shows that some call centers are most effective when staffed by Americans and there is at least some growing attempt to keep jobs here. I've noticed that many companies are now trying to keep the bulk of their daytime customer service call center jobs in the United States where the calls can be handled by American English speaking agents. For customer service lines that provide 24 hour coverage and take on evening calls however, some still get routed overseas to places like India, but many daytime calls are now being mercifully handled by call centers in the U.S. At least that's what I noticed recently when I called my cable internet provider's help line several times recently. When I called during normal daytime office hours, I got a service rep that spoke perfect English, but at night, I basically played the ole accent guessing game, doubling and even tripling the length of time spent trying to resolve my problem.
For those of you out there who are embarrassed to admit but also have difficulty understanding accents, I recommend making your 1-800 customer service and technical support phone calls during the day. Sure that means using up your precious anytime wireless phone minutes, but you stand a much better chance of reaching someone in this country than if you called after hours.