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Outsourcing Call Center Jobs To India Leads To Bad Customer Service

Published 7/31/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

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.

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84 Responses to “Outsourcing Call Center Jobs To India Leads To Bad Customer Service” 

  1. Ramesh says:

    Anti Outsourcers always find a reason to point their fingers out!!!!!! I know it makes no sense cribbin about it!!!

  2. Mrs. Micah says:

    @Aurora, that sounds like a reasonable set of screening guidelines, if one has to outsource. For example, when I was working at a user testing company, I had to record all my sessions using screen and voice capture. Part of what they were concerned about was whether I spoke in a clear, easy-to-understand voice. It's just part of the job, whether English is your native language or not. Of course, companies with fewer staffing needs can be more discerning.

  3. Saarthak says:

    Alright, here comes a view from an Indian with a very unbiased and free outlook. I had once joined an international call center during my college vacations 3 years ago in Gurgaon (near New Delhi, India). It was only for vacations to earn some quick buck...and this BPO that I joined catered to ambulance and healthcare services in a certain part of America. I expected that the company would train me in American accent and voice modulation, but nothing of the sort happened. I was just trained for a day on how, whom and what I had to talk about. The job involved calling up hospitals in the US and asking them about patients who had claimed medical insurance for their treatment..so I never really had to face angry customers. I did not have much of a problem bringing on an American accent thanks to years of watching Hollywood movies and endless episodes of "FRIENDS" and "The Wonder Years". Neither did the voice at the other end ever have to ask "what" to understand what I was saying...

    What I'm trying to point out is certain companies who outsource tend not to focus on voice and accent training to save on costs, which harms them in the long run. I can assure you that there are some companies that train their employees so well in American accents and modulation that you wouldn't be able to find the difference! But a majority often lack in that department which results in poor customer service.

    Having read so much in the media, I understand how miffed and frustrated many of the Americans feel about this issue, especially when it also results in job losses there. But thats how globalization runs. Many American companies have set base in India and are earning great profits from India's vast market (we might still be a developing country but have the 2nd largest population in the world, and the 4th largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity). And outsourcing is bound to grow as long as there is a vast difference between labor costs in US and developing countries.

  4. Rajandran says:

    Here the problem is not our accent . Its the economy of the developed countries.
    Have a look at this video before writing such craps.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4343898391323537541&ei=-7qdSPX2LYzQwgPY8Ygx&q=global+imbalance+and+dollar+crisis

    Here is a speech from our Economist. Hope you understand his accent

  5. stacy says:

    i currently work in a callcenter and i had this one horrible experience with someone who's having difficulties pronuncing english words and constructing an english sentence.
    I take escalation calls and so I did my opening spiel and that agent on the other line answered back " AH A I'M SOWREE YOU'RE BRREAKING DA LINE" and i was like ""WHATTT????" ,pressed the mute button and laughted real hard...what she meant actually was that there's too much static on the line.That agent is from somewhere in asia.
    Imagine if you are the customer and needed help, how do you think an agent like that is going to address your concerns? You will end up calling back, crossing your fingers hoping you'll get an agent with american accent.
    I think it's not with where you're from, it's with how you were trained. I think these companies should also provide their employees proper training, spend enough time training their people, monitoring their calls and providing them feedback.

  6. Mrs. Micah says:

    @Saarthak, you make an excellent point. We have classes in America about learning to reduce accent thickness (and video tapes) which I periodically see advertised in my immigrant-rich area. It doesn't seem like there's a dearth of resources or of people who will teach this kind of thing. But that might make outsourcing as expensive as "insourcing" (as it were).

  7. Bill Ferrabone says:

    Hi i work in a call center in Panama, and i was taking US calls but the funny stuff is that people from the US complains about Oursourcing accent when they are a country of inmigrants!!! so please, be serious!!!

  8. Suhas Bokare says:

    Sorry for this delayed response. In-fact, I've heard when it comes to write the perfect gramatical English with the correct spellings, Americans are too weak. The persons weak in writing tends to pronounce the language wrong way. It is known by whole world how Americans have polluted this language. Dude, AnywayS, Color (and not colour), Cool and many such examples can be given. We should not beleive that what we do and what we speak is perfect. Sorry for the little strong language. But, you see, language and accent changes at every mile. Even my neighbouring locality will have different way of speaking. In-stead of saying Indians cannot speak, to put it more correctly, say, we don't understand the way the Indians speak. This, any Indian can digest. This is because the Indians are used to clean use of the language. Indian languages don't support to skip the words within the words. About, 'Mary', there exists Christain in India too.

  9. Lena says:

    I don't believe that the person who wrote this blog had any intention of upsetting other ethnicities; he was simply discussing a subject that bothers many Americans. There is no need for people of Indian decent to become so enraged about this subject... and those who are angered obviously do not understand what he was attempting to say. He was not implying that Americans speak perfect English, nor was he implying that Indians "cannot speak"... he was simply stating that an American company who caters to American consumers should consider the possibility of having American customer service representatives. The entire aspect of "customer service and/or support" is to "provide service and/or support to the customer". It is difficult for a customer to feel as if they are receiving satisfactory customer support if there is a language/accent barrier that is hindering the support part of it. Many of the Indian customer service reps that I have dealt with have just as difficult a time in trying to understand me as I do in trying to understand them. It's not that one of us is speaking correctly and the other is speaking incorrectly... it's simply that it is sometimes difficult to overcome that language/accent barrier and, therefore, it changes a simple customer support issue into a matter of inability to effectively communicate with one another. If I were of Indian decent, living in India, I would hope that I could call an Indian company with an issue that I had and be able to speak with someone who understood me and who I, in turn, could also understand.

  10. Lena says:

    On a side note, perhaps I wouldn't be so eager to criticize others' speech if I myself didn't use correct English grammar. I find it rather amusing that someone would make a statement like "Americans are weak when it comes to the perfect grammatical English with the correct spellings" and in the same sentence that person would spell "grammatical" incorrectly. I am more than happy to help you out. I believe that this is what Suhas meant to say: (I will, of course, use proper English grammar and spelling.)

    Sorry for this delayed response. In-fact, I've heard that, when it comes to writing in perfect grammatical English with the correct spellings, Americans are too weak. People who are weak in writing tend to pronounce the language the wrong way. It is known by the whole world how Americans have polluted this language (this, of course, being an opinion and not a factual statement since no one person could possibly know what the "whole world" thinks). Words such as "dude", "anyways", "color" (and not colour), "cool" and many other examples can be given. ("Color", of course, being the spelling used in the dictionary A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language which was published in 1806 by Noah Webster. He urged that needlessly confusing words be altered ('plough' became 'plow', for instance) and many silent letters (such as the U in ������colour') were to be dropped. This dictionary made the following changes in the English language: The orthography is, in some instances, corrected; change in the pronunciation marked by an accent or other suitable direction; and the definitions of many words were amended and improved. The original settlers to New England taught English Webster's spelling-rules which omitted 'U' in words ending in 'OUR' (ex: honor/honour & color/colour, etc) and also promoted single consonants instead of double consonants in 2nd syllables, (ex: traveler/traveller, etc). The influence of multi-cultural immigrants to the U.S. has also meant that American spellings have gradually evolved over the centuries, becoming more phonetic than British spellings. American spellings are now becoming more universal as Microsoft software defaults to American spellings and often does not recognize British spellings. I'm sure that most of you already knew all of this though!). We should not believe (������i' comes before ������e' in believe, of course) that what we do or how we speak is perfect. I'm sorry for the slightly (not little) strong language, but, you see, language and accent change (not ������changes') at every mile. (I apologize, Mr. Bokare, but you cannot begin a sentence with the word "but".) Even my neighboring locality will have a different way of speaking. Instead of saying that Indians cannot speak, to put it in more correct terms, you should say "We don't understand the way that the Indians speak." This would be a comment that any Indian can digest. This is because the Indians are used to clean use of the language. Indian languages don't support to skip the words within the words. (Sorry everyone, I couldn't correct that sentence because I don't understand what Mr. Bokare was attempting to say.) In regards to ������Mary', Christianity does, in fact, exist in India as well.

    I hope that this corrected version helps some people to better understand what Suhas was attempting to say. You know, since we Americans have polluted this language and may not understand what other, "more intelligent", people are trying to say to us.

  11. Katherine says:

    To the Indians who are responding to this blog. Funny how the AMERICANS and our economy is fueling your prosperity in India. I worked for Infosys so I know the Indian culture. As a senior leader in the firm I was told on multiple accounts that the men will not work for a woman. What a progressive country you have.

    Secondly, I pay hard earned money for services upon which I expect customer service from an agent who understands the venacular of the country of their customer. We pay the bills Mr. Indian so we can expect excellent service.

    As for your disdain for America. How about taking your jobs out of our country today? How about we utilize other countries for our low cost labor pool. Your arrogance and inability to adapt to our culture means you do not need to partake in our wealth. We are not going to change for you so I recommend you leave. A country of Christian immigrants is what we are and we are proud of it. My father fought for our freedom and for who we are as a nation and there is a new generation of people who will continue to protect our beliefs and values.

    It will be a delightful day when I can pick up the phone, dial an 800 # and get a fellow American. I will gladly pay more for their EXCELLENT service versus put money in an Indian's pocket.

    By the way, forget political correctness. Many (I mean many of us) are done with it.

  12. ROSEANN ROSANNADANNA says:

    I have been a customer service rep(telephone) for over 20 years. I have also done quality assurance work and taught phone skills to new employees. Americans have to stand up and stop doing business with companies that are outsourcing to India. The bottom line is this America has made it possible for American corporations to do this becuase they don't want to pay Americans to perform decent Customer Service; alot of these companies at one point were paying illiterates and people on some kind of work release and even in some cases actual prisoners to do this work. We all know that you get what you pay for. So, when these low paid Americans just weren't cutting the customer service mustard, these businesses then had the ammunition to run over to India where they could get the Indian equivalent of a college graduate to do the work they should have been paying their own countrymen a minimum of $15-$20 per hour(trained professionals not prisoners), could now be had for just $2.00 and hour. Even more shocking you have Americans flying over there to India teaching these Indians American dialects to try to fool you. All you have to do is keep asking questions that deviate from their scripts which they have no rebuttal for to trip them up. The worse is that they really can't help you, there purpose seems to be more to upsell you on some other feature or item. And to all you Indian rep responding to this site...get stuffed!!!

  13. Annoyed says:

    This is a serious matter that needs to be address. Sitting on the phone waiting for the next available customer service rep for 15-20 minutes while the call is actually being routed to India, is unacceptable. Don't get me wrong...most are very courteous...but I am over 60 and hearing impaired. I cannot tell you the many times that I had to ask for them to repeat what they said or speak slowly. The reps with heavy accents, I ask immediately for a supervisor( another Indian-with a clearer voice). It is very frustrating for me and the rep when I know they are trying to do their job. When dealing with some credit accounts can be very tasking. Sometimes I give up and revert to email if possible or snail mail. Sigh...

  14. Pratish says:

    Hello,

    First of all to Lena, learn the english language history, before responding to anyone with what you think is proper english, first of all Suha of course after all is of Indian origin or background, he will not know english as much as yourself, but you on the other hand should know that regardless of your argument, British english is the proper english language, you can argue and cry all you want about what micrsoft is following or not, but it doesn't change the fact that british english is more proper, but as myself I am used to american english, which is much more comfortable for me, but I do realise the fact that american english is not perfect, its like saying ebonics is is english.

    Let not critize each other, I myself work in a call center in Arizona, and do not have the thick Indian accent, and get complains from customer who may have talked with a rep in India, but like any other country, american english is hard to pick up and takes time to learn.

    Anyways, the point is if american companies are getting so many complaints from customers, and american companies are all about "customer service" then why still keep outsourcing to India, we need jobs here. Why do american companies keep running to India, still knowing the problems?

    MONEY RULES!

  15. Suresh says:

    Katherine, it is true men here do not like to work under women. Have you tried to know why? Women here have a tendency to think, that the men are trying to undermine them and will use all the excuses they can get to not do a work under them. This has forced them to be always secluded and very tight gripped and not lenient. True some turds (men) are and may-be like that, but not every one. But because men are generalized on this, they tend to stay away from a women boss. Its a catch 22 situation. Remember this is a country that had Women Presidents, Women Prime Minister, Women Chief Minister, Women Enterpreners etc etc. I remember reading, that America was just like this 60yrs back.

  16. Brenda says:

    So, let's start a list of companies that outsource their call centers.

    DirecTV
    Best Buy

    Anyone else?

  17. Raymond says:

    Er, I suspect almost all companies out there outsource their call center jobs and duties to India to some extent. Perhaps it might be easier to list companies that DON'T outsource their customer call center assignments to other foreign countries. Outsourced Indian call centers seem to be pretty much the established norm these days, much to the dismay of people like myself who have trouble understanding thick accents...

  18. Leah says:

    I totally agree. I have nothing against Indian people but when I call up customer service help line, and speak to an Indian representative with a heavy Indian accent, I find very difficult to understand what their saying. You can only say, "Sorry can you repeat that?" so many times. It is frustrating, as much for them as it is for me. I don't really care who answers the phone as long as I can understand what their saying and they help me.

  19. Mira says:

    I am seriously fed up with Indian customer service. I don't care if I'm politically incorrect! I'm Indian, born and raised in the US and I find it even more unacceptable that these corporations would pass on these jobs to a country that cannot identify with our culture. These people are poor representives of the company and I refuse to do business with any company that would be careless enough to outsource to India.

    I blame Bush for this!

  20. Satish says:

    I am a British born Indian who agrees with everything this article says. I have had nightmares with Indian call centre workers. I either cannot understand the accent, or the idiot on the other side is too stupid and rude to do the work. My black British friend was so pissed with substandard service from an Indian call centre one day that he could not help loosing his temper, shouting back and throwing his mobile phone across the room, all right in front of his friends (which included me). Most of the times it is not racism but frustration at bad service. I would like all British companies to bring back their customer support services to the U.K and yes this is coming from a person of Indian ancestry.

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