Dear Call Center Companies: Speak My Language or I’m Hanging Up!
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Dear Call Center Companies: Speak My Language or I’m Hanging Up!

Dear Call Center Companies: Speak My Language or I’m Hanging Up!

To stay connected to the global industry, international call centers may have to do some fast talking to avoid losing vital business. Some news articles have highlighted customer service issues that have led to dissatisfaction among some international businesses with their outsourced call centers.

An article published by The Independent published the headline “UK firms decide it’s time to hang up on Indian call centres” and discussed how the more complex nature of customer questions hit a language barrier and that the need for large call centers was diminished as new technologies have been incorporated to address the simpler customer issues.

Most industry-wide call center issues relate to communication and language gaps associated with international call centers. Just imagine this scenario a call monitoring company reported to “a call center company …used outsourced call centers in Egypt, with a quality monitoring company [that] was based in India. Presuming this company’s customers are Americans, how could it possibly believe that the cross-over of translation is actually uncovering the true customer experience?”

ABC News reported that “American companies were saving a lot of money, but now, many of those same companies are bringing their call centers home” because of customer service problems, particularly problems with the language barrier.

The Guardian posted this user’s frustration with his bank’s overseas call centers: “Not only was the accent difficult to understand, but they seemed to be allowed to do little other than read from a prepared script. I was told there was no manager available to deal with my more complex request.” Instead of an isolated event, this caller reflects industry-wide experiences associated with outsourced call centers.

What’s At Stake

India has a lot to lose if their call center industry goes bust. Mail Online asserts that “About 330,000 people are employed in India’s call centres, in an industry worth around £3.2 billion a year.”

Yet, a writer from the telecommunications sector asserts that the cost-savings model of employing outsourced companies to provide customer service could become obsolete given that “call centers are anything but low-value because they provide an unbelievable opportunity to interact with customers. Companies spend millions of dollars every year marketing to existing and prospective customers, but when those customers directly contact an organization, it’s OK to provide a merely satisfactory (or, often, dissatisfactory) level of service that detracts from the overall customer experience?” (Baseline Magazine, 2012-07-03)

The Independent reported why the UK firm Santander returned its call centers to the UK from India. A Santander spokeswoman explained, “Complaints soared as the frustrations of language problems became lodged in the public consciousness. And in recent years the guarantee that calls would be answered in the UK became a selling point in advertising campaigns for organisations, such as Royal Bank of Scotland, which never moved their call centres overseas.”

What Businesses Expect

On its website, Call Center India explained why they think international call centers are important to international business. Outsourced call centers in countries like India allow businesses to “to exchange the high fixed costs and management drain of all call center operation for the variable cost, flexibility, control and expertise of a company whose primary business is call center services.” In other words, outsourcing customer service proved cost-effective.

On the other hand, disgruntled customers are not what companies bargained for. Forbes reported that “businesses are taking their customers’ needs more seriously.” Even with new technical innovations and more customer-friendly websites “customers still rely on—but often loathe—contacting a company’s call center to articulate a unique need or resolve a problem, especially when the issue is complex. When they’ve had a bad experience, customers are quick to defect and oftentimes share those experiences with their social networks via sites like Twitter and Facebook.”

New Answers for the Industry?

The obvious answers to this question are to provide a better customer service and language experience for clients. Yet, already changes are afoot. If some Asian nations like India are losing business, others like the Philippines are witnessing industry growth. CNN reports that “While the Philippines has struggled to grow other industries such as manufacturing or tourism, the country has found it is uniquely positioned to excel in the call center business.”

They assert that “Most Filipinos are also familiar with American cultural exports, ranging from American Idol to Krispy Kreme donuts. This informal bond, employers say, makes it easier for them to relate to Americans over the telephone.” Cultural familiarity coupled with strong language skills appears to help bridge the distance gap.

The New York Times recently reported on the Philippine’s success model by explaining “Filipinos learn American English in the first grade, eat hamburgers, follow the N.B.A. and watch the TV show “Friends” long before they enter a call center.”

Are hamburgers and TV shows really the answer for India? BPO Watch, formerly, recommends that outsourced call centers can “can provide multi-skill training to develop the skills of their agents.” Keeping in mind that Filipinos are paid better for their call center positions, Indian companies may want to take notice as better pay could reasonably help their high turnover rate.

According to BPO Watch, Indian call center workers have a fairly dismal time of it: “rigorous working shifts, physical and mental strain, no personal life, poor corporate culture, less job satisfaction, no career development.” That sounds like an unpleasant work environment in any language.

New Technology and Oldies-but-Goodies

Yet, some companies simply want to abandon the warehouse model of employees in headsets for more innovative solutions. Forbes also reported on the CEO of Eloyalty and his new software “that not only can define a specific complaint but also decode a caller’s personality. The technology sniffs out 2 million speech patterns that categorize people into one of six personality types; other telltale phrases clue the algorithms into what the specific complaint might be.” IBM’s head of outsourcing for Asia reported to Business Week that “It’s no longer about cost …clients want innovation and creative tools for superior performance.”

Aside from major innovations, many companies have turned to more simple but effective web and app solutions. From multilingual websites to professional translation solutions, customers are able to find “‘multi-channel’ strategies — giving customers the options of contacting the company using anything from email to webchat to automated voice services” according to The Independent article referenced above.

Yet, perhaps with diligence to remove language barriers, Barb from Boston might be willing to hang on the line with Sandeep from Delhi and Sandeep might be better inclined to pick up if he’s both paid and trained better.

On the other hand, the call centers are certainly in transition; where those calls will be ringing is likely to be up in the air as the industry shifts. As companies better understand the demands of multilingual customer services, will it continue to be cost-effective to outsource and better train call center employees or will it be cheaper to hire native speakers to handle a lower call volume to handle the complex calls? 

That question has lots of jobs around the world hanging on the line.