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The Heat is on Indian Call Centers Yet Again

Indian call centers are in the news again, and yet again it’s for the wrong reasons. Faced by increasing customer complaints on quality of call handling in Indian call centers, a number of large British firms are shifting their call centers back to the UK. Having seen the Indian BPO industry and their process rigor from close quarters, I find it hard to believe that their quality of service has come under question. The customer, if not satisfied, has every right to complain and the industry needs to closely analyze these complaints and find sustainable solutions.

Indian call centers are in the news again, and yet again it’s for the wrong reasons. Faced by increasing customer complaints on quality of call handling in Indian call centers, a number of large British firms are shifting their call centers back to the UK. Having seen the Indian BPO industry and their process rigor from close quarters, I find it hard to believe that their quality of service has come under question. The customer, if not satisfied, has every right to complain and the industry needs to closely analyze these complaints and find sustainable solutions.

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Let’s take the example of customer comments on a related article on BBC’s website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6353491.stm). Going by these comments, the complaints can be categorized in three broad areas.

1.Communication issues due to language and accent
2.Job losses
3.Inability to solve problems with speed and efficiency

The common complaint relates to language and accent. Apparently, accent differences are causing severe communication gaps, ultimately leading to frustrated customers. Over the last few years I have met many call center workers across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Each one of them had exceptional English speaking skills. Their vocabulary, diction and accent were flawless, an obvious result of rigorous accent and language training, something I have personally witnessed in several Indian BPOs. I must confess, however, that I have interacted with only the top-tier Indian call centers and their workers. But the fact is that accent differences are common even within the same country, and these differences will not be neutralized by bringing call centers back home.

That leaves us with complaints in the other two categories. These are the real problems and, if you look closely, they are inter-related. An emotional backlash to job losses is natural as well as expected. One can’t expect the common American or British citizen to be happy about jobs moving to India and other low cost countries. I know for a fact that I will be terribly upset if Indian jobs moved abroad. Most people may have accepted this as an irreversible trend, but they will rationalize that if Indians are now handling my calls they better be darned good. So, customer expectations from offshore services are higher, their performances are closely monitored and even small errors are magnified. Mistakes and problems, which would otherwise be ignored or laughed at, are now viewed much more seriously.

Companies outsourcing to India and Indian BPO organizations need to take cognizance of this constant scrutiny. On their part, Indian call centers need to further raise their service levels and try to achieve true six sigma perfection. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the only way to build a smoother and more sustainable business environment.

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Companies outsourcing to India need to share this responsibility. It’s imperative that they view outsourcing as a strategic initiative. Often, myopic companies opt for offshore outsourcing looking for short-term cost benefits. A primarily cost-driven selection procedure gets them a mediocre offshore partner. And cost savings targeted at the next quarter results lead to hasty transition and inadequate training. And these directly reflect on the quality of service. Inability of call agents to go beyond a script, a common complaint, is a clear consequence of inadequate training. Further, as reported in India’s leading financial daily (http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/News/News_By_Industry/Infotech/ITeS/Clients_arm-twist_BPOs/articleshow/1755435.cms) some of these large global companies are arm twisting their way into one-sided contracts, putting their offshore partners under severe pressure, and not giving them enough confidence to invest into long-term training.

While India’s viability as an outsourcing destination is still not threatened, this is a storm that the industry needs to weather to move to the next level of the game. I believe this is possible, but only if all stakeholders in the game – clients, service providers and workers – work at it in a unified manner.

Anupam Mukerji • Bangalore, India • anupam.mukerji@gmail.com www.mmi-india.com

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