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.


7 December, 2007

India – Masters of Customer Service

“If you want to provide your customers with really first class customer service, you have to go to India.” The Germans have developed a second-to-none ability to build cars, the Japanese televisions and, in my opinion if your HiFi isn’t Scottish, it’s crap. Now where in the world do they have more experience, more people, more managers, more executives devoted to providing customer service and technical support than here in India? So it just stands to reason that we are the world’s best, right?

How does that sound? Are you buying it? Seth Godin is on a roll this week about customer service and call centers. In his piece called The discipline of one ring he alludes to the vast difference in customer experience for customers of companies who have committed to answering the phone on the first ring and the experience many of us are more used to (I was in a 2-hour queue with my hosting company this week who tout their support as being “exclusively UK-based”). I will leave it to Seth to examine why this customer experience makes a difference, but I wonder how many Indian Call Centers are ready to promote, sell, staff and manage a one-ring level of customer service. If we don’t understand this concept, aren’t able to articulate the advantages, aren’t willing to sell the reasoning and move our prospects and customers (where appropriate) in this direction, then why not?

3 December, 2007

Thank you for calling, please hold, click

Seth Godin writes in his blog today about an excruciating experience with PayPal. Reading through it I can’t believe there is anyone who doesn’t feel his pain – we’ve all been there. It also strikes me that while they are not alone, this is definitely an example of the intended customer service model for the PayPal-eBay-Skype group in my experience.

Coincidently, I was using Skype (which I think is a brilliant product) to call my bank back in the UK about my new credit card that’s gone missing in the post. While I was waiting in the queue I read in Seth’s blog:

If you’re on this system and a long-time customer calls in with a complicated problem, one that’s going to require supervisor intervention and follow up, what’s your best plan? Is it to spend an hour with this person over three days, or is the system designed to have you politely get them to just give up?

which I figured was probably an amazing bit of foreshadowing.

Both here in India and in the UK, reps know very well how to simply hang-up when they get one of these hard-to-deal-with problems, never mind being discouraging. Fortunately this is not the norm but it does happen with disturbing frequency. This is the curse of the AHT (Average Handling Time, the mean amount of time a rep spends on his/her calls during the day/week/month). It’s often the main measure for our staff and our centres and everyone in the industry knows that it is inversely related to good customer service. So one wonders how we have come to the conclusion that measuring and encouraging poor customer service is good for business. You can say it’s more complicated than that and perhaps it is, but it isn’t.

Is it any wonder that we have such high turnover of staff when we stress quality, have QA managers, monitor calls for quality but then incent for speed?

Because my new card was lost in the mail, my bank cancelled it leaving us now cardless in the run-up to our Christmas travels. Because of our travel schedule, if we don’t get the card next week, we won’t be able to collect it until sometime in February. The rep handling my call was friendly and understanding and stuck with me and my problem for every bit of 30 minutes trying to solve it. Alas, she was unable to get the dispatch people to send the new cards by courier even after I offered to pay for it myself, But they did offer this, and I’m not making this up, “Tell him to call back tomorrow and ask, maybe we’ll be in a better mood.” And with that, they went home for the day. I wonder what they’re measure on?

15 November, 2007

The Company Christmas Letter

The company I’m with now, as well as most of my previous ones, have kicked around the idea of having a company newsletter that we would send out regularly to keep in touch with customers. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of these kinds of things. The people you really want to be in touch with are normally important, busy people whose biggest problem is managing-down the oceans of data and inputs they receive to something manageable. Unless your monthly newsletter is a McKinsey Quarterly quality industry analysis, it’s going to look like spam. Don’t waste your time.

We’re just passing through the Diwali holiday season here in India which means that Christmas and the end of the year are approaching (for those of us using the Gregorian calendar). If you want an excuse for keeping in touch with customers, it seems to me that this would be a good time for the president or CEO of the company to write a short formal letter to those valued clients.

Now, in my experience there are two kinds of people in the world, people who write, photocopy and send out Family Christmas Letters to all their friends and relatives and people who hate these letters. The people in the latter category tend not to like them because they are impersonal letters masquerading as personal and because they are kind of boring (“Back in April, Suzy broke her arm  and Fido got second place in the local dog show”). So, let’s not make the same mistake with ours.

Here is my suggested structure for your end-of-year CEO letter:

  • Thank you for your business
  • Thank you for contributing to our success [quantify as turnover/expansion/profit]
  • Our goals for next year are [in bullet form, these should be ones that resonate with customers and be real, quantifiable things that customers recognise will benefit them]
  • We look forward to working with you in 2008, call me if I can be of assistance [CEO’s direct phone number and email]

This letter should force you to think about what you are going to do better/faster/cheaper next year. It should make you write down, at least at a high level, how you are going to improve your relationship with your current customers next year. It should cause you to be creative and use your vision to anticipate your customer’s needs and it should force you to document and commit to some goals.

18 October, 2007

Call Centre Hell

Filed under: Bad,Call Center,Customer Service — shamrin @ 12:47

You know I would really prefer to talk about great moments in customer service here rather than dwell on the negatives. But this blog entry from Rajan Sodhi in the BIG Marketing for Small Business blog is eye popping. In it, he describes how he had to wait in a call queue for well over an hour on three successive occasions to change a ticket on Expedia Canada. Is this the level to which customer service has sunk in North America? I remember many years ago when I moved to Sweden how we used to talk about the amazing level of customer service that we got in America and compare it to the relatively poor levels around Europe. But you know, even my bank back in the UK answers my call within a few rings.

I also note, as if to add insult to injury, Expedia blame the delay on “high security standards”. Huh? What are they talking about? Hang on, let me get my Erlang tables out of the drawer here and see where to account for “high security”. This seems like the double-whammy to me, treat your customer poorly then lie to him about the reasons. Shame.

9 September, 2007

Standard Chartered Revisited

Filed under: Customer Service,India,Marketing,personal,Standard Chartered — shamrin @ 10:41

In August I wrote an entry called “The whole world is watching” in which I suggested that the way we do business and the way we treat employees is more important than ever. I went on to say then:

Web 2.0 has not gripped India the way it has America and other parts of the west, we don’t have 1 billion bloggers yet, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there are sure to be benefits for organisations that conduct themselves in the most ethical, transparent ways.

Well, maybe I wasn’t giving India enough credit. Last week I took Standard Chartered Bank to task on this blog for a shameful level of customer service from their call center and an incident that occurred in their local branch. On Friday I received two phone calls, one from the branch and one from the call center apologising for the problem and assuring me that this is not the level of service they expect customers to receive. They said that they had seen the blog and were prompted to call and make amends. There had apparently been quite a fuss in the branch over all this too as the one of the staff came out to apologise in person when he saw me at the ATM on Saturday.

I was a little taken aback by all this because I’m not used to a bank really giving a damn when I complain, ask anyone that banks in the UK and they will tell you the same thing. So full credit to Standard Chartered for their mea culpa, I think they did pretty much everything they could after the fact to fix things up. Now the proof is in how they do things better, I hope they do.

But I was just as taken aback by the fact that someone at Standard Chartered found my comments here and triggered a response within the organisation that led to me being called. That’s no small feat and it makes me wonder if they actually have a program to monitor their online reputation. Whether they do or whether finding my comments was just some amazing coincidence (like my wife running into a high school classmate here in Delhi this weekend) it demonstrates that large organisations do care about their online reputation. We would all do well to follow this practice in the future.

3 September, 2007

Company Values

I was going through my routine this morning of checking the blogs I regularly follow and it struck me how often some of them deal with values. Both Maria Palma at Customers are always and Tom Vander Well, who I reference here often, seem to address company and personal values issues quite often. I think this is because we are in a customer service business and we recognise the “service” part of that role. If that’s right, it is hopeful for this business that people in leadership are speaking out. The subject of company values is particularly interesting to me right now because I am developing a new website for my company and plan to include a “Mission & Values” section to help describe what we are all about.

Now, “mission” and “values” aren’t the same thing but the process of developing a new mission statement has led me to think about what our values are, and what they should be. How do we want to do business? What sort of reputation would we like to have? What is it that we intend to bring to the market?

I don’t believe that companies are like people. They can’t be “kind” or “generous” or “compassionate” like people. When they seem to behave in these ways, with few exceptions they do so for profit motive (you don’t really think McDonalds “believes” in the Olympic movement do you?). But just the same businesses are made up of people and those people can be influenced to behave in certain ways based on stated values. So if those at the top of the organisation care about how their business makes money, mission and values that are committed to and followed by management are important because they give real people guidance in how to carry out their jobs.

31 August, 2007

Owning the problem

Filed under: Bad,Customer Service,India,Standard Chartered — shamrin @ 17:47

Today’s example of poor customer service comes from Standard Chartered Bank here in India. I have to admit I’ve not had a good track record with these guys, I’ve lost count of how many times their Call Center agents have simply dropped my call when asked a hard question. But today I think we got a teachable point. I had ordered a new debit card over the phone, it was meant to be delivered to my local branch but I went into the bank to pick up my new debit card I was told by the customer service executive that the card was not in the bank. I asked him to look it up in the computer and he verified that the card had been issued and that my account had been debited for the cost of my “privileged” gold card. Then he did something that I think was rather amazing, he handed the problem back to me. When I asked what was next, he didn’t get on the phone and try to find out where the card was, or double-check the bank’s records or really even think about it that much, he just told me, “Well, you’ll have to call the customer support line and sort it out with them.”

The teachable point is that if you work for the bank, or the ISP or the Wal-Mart or whatever organisation you are a part of and whether you are in a call center or on site, never, never, never hand a problem back to a customer. Like it or not, when a customer gives you his problem, you’re stuck with it, solve the problem or find someone who can solve the problem and stick with it until the customer is satisfied.

As it turns out, my card was in the bank but I only found this out after being sent to another branch, then returning to the original one to insist that the card was there. I realise that banks these days aren’t known to be the paragon’s of helpfulness but these guys at Standard Chartered wrote the book on bad service. No one ever said they were sorry or gave any explanation.

Update: See Standard Chartered Revisited entry for more on this. 

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