Outsourcing and Call Center Blog

17 January, 2008

India – Masters of Customer Service – Part II

I think I may have been a bit too subtle with my point in my original post on this topic. The title is meant to be ironic, and the post meant to challenge Indian call centres as to why, with all the experience we have here, we are not widely considered the best in the world at what we do. Cheapest yes, best no.

A couple of readers have been moved to comment on my post, I suspect missing my poorly supported irony, about the failings of Indian outsourcing. There are some common themes I see in posts here and elsewhere that talk about Indian outsourcing. The complaints normally have to do with language, subject knowledge and communication. An example of this comes from Reader “Spence” commenting on my original entry on this topic:

Most of the reps [in India] on the phones are given a week long crash course on how to pronounce words on a page. That does not mean they understand what they are saying and you can’t tell me that you could take a similar course in a language you have only heard in movies and music and be able to communicate as proficiently as in your native tongue.

I think Spence is ill-informed but I can’t blame him for that, there are enough call centres here in India for which this statement is accurate that it is a defensible remark. For the record, the agents working in most international call centres have been speaking and learning English from their first day in school. The major papers here are in English, English is the language of business and of Television news. Actually the movies and music here (alas) tend to be in Hindi or another one of the nine indigenous languages.

Individual Difference

A Western company looking to outsource their call centre misses the fact that there is great variation in approach and quality among Indian call centres at its peril. I divide the call centre market here into 3 categories (which I will cover not in numerical order for reasons that are my own :-).

Tier I Call Centres– These are the highly capitalised, highly professional global outsourcing players that Thomas Friedman writes about. Infosys, Wipro, Convergys, Genpact are among the names in this category. These companies have a lot of money and have world-class skills in dealing with Western clients, understanding their problems and developing solution. They throw a lot of their money and recruiting, at training and retention. I don’t think they always get it right, but from what I’ve seen they have a good product.

Tier III Call Centres – This is a big category and it’s to call centres in this category that my friends like Spence (I think) often refer. These call centres have somewhere between a few and a few hundred people working for them. They are cutting their margins as thinly as they can to attract business. These guys are the “Wham bam thank you ma’am” end of the industry. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect mostly they work their buns off for their clients, but because they’re small, poorly capitalised and, yes, because of some unique features of Indian culture, their commitment to quality can exceed their ability to deliver.

Tier II Call Centres – Somewhere in between the global players and the bottom feeders, there is a group of medium to large centres that are delivering high quality service on a (just) slightly better than shoe string budget. These centres have from a few hundred to a few thousand agents and, while they are under-capitalised, they are generating enough cash flow to provide high quality services to companies that, like themselves, are in the middle ground of their own markets but have aspirations. The company I worked for here in India was in this category.

From my own experience in the middle tier, agents get a considerable amount of training (six weeks on many international processes) both on subject matter and accent training. The accent training is not so much to correct their English as to shape it for the target market. I didn’t have that much exposure to raw recruits but the agents who reach the floor are typically experienced agents whose English and verbal communications skills are as good mine. I note with some humility that most of them are also brighter, smarter and harder working than me – oh well, hopefully wisdom comes only with age, it may be all I have left to rely on.

What’s the Problem Then?

So if the people and the training and the experience is so great Steve, why do so many people rubbish Indian centres as having poor quality and what should they (we) do about it? Ah, well, that is a huge question that I do have some insights on that I will get to in the future either here or elsewhere. Here are a couple of things for now:

  • Any company thinking of outsourcing to India needs to think about more than just price, it needs to be ready to look at process, at training and measurement. If you want a quality output, find an outsourcing partner that is ready to make some recommendations about processes, not just take yours as a given.
  • I think the way you go about choosing an Indian outsourcing partner is very different than the way you would choose, say a business partner based in North America. I suspect a lot of off-shoring arrangements are doomed from the start because of avoidable mismatches stemming from differences in business culture and communications style.
  • For customer service processes, training has to go beyond the mechanics of issue resolution and the words that are used with callers. Think empathy training.

To those of you who have mentioned it’s been a while since I wrote anything here, I thank you for noticing. It’s a busy time here, we are getting ready for an international relocation and at the same time trying to get in as much last minute sightseeing as we can. I’ll do my best to keep up regular entries.

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