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Blog: Offshore call centers get a bad rap... and other thoughts

Blog: Offshore call centers get a bad rap... and other thoughts

I had a candid conversation with a IT/BPO services company CEO yesterday. That I was on the phone with an executive at an IT vendor is not itself unusual. I talk to them quite often for one of two reasons: either I'm working on a story they can provide some insight about, or I'm taking what's called an editorial briefing to satisfy my publisher. This call was actually the latter. These calls fall into two camps. Either the CEO sounds like he's reading from a press release and has a ready (and boring) answer to every question or he lets down his guard and we have an actual human conversation that's enlightening or funny or just plain old enjoyable. This call was actually the latter.

The conversation was with P.V. Kannan, co-founder and CEO of 24/7 Customer, based in Los Gatos, Calif. with the bulk of operations in India and an expanding presence globally. 24/7 Customer's web site says it's "the world's first global integrated customer lifecycle management services company." Which means, the company operates call centers.

Usually you can tell within the first few minutes of these vendor briefings what kind of call you're in for (and whether you might be best served trying to "multi-task" while on the phone). But when you mention your theory that everyone's been quick to put a stake in the ground in China, but no one seems to have an actual strategy... and instead of equivocating or explaining his own reasons for setting up shop in China, the CEO actual agrees wholeheartedly, you perk up.

On that note, I thought I'd share a bit more of what Kannan talked about.

The declining state of "customer service"

Part of the issue, says Kannan, is that most of his clients view customer care as a "problem" they want to get rid of. "That leads to very narrow thinking," says Kannan. On the other side of the phone is a customer who already thinks the company is rying to evade him, having to hunt for number to call about the Byzantine bill he just got in the mail from company X.

Company X, meanwhile, thinks with all the technology out there, the problem should already be solved. "They think you have IVR (interactive voice response systems) and a kick-ass web site and everyone will go there," says Kannan.

"No one owns the customer in large companies," Kannan says. You can't go into any large bank and say, "I'm your customer." You're divided up. You're a credit card here, a mortgage there, a high-net worth individual or a customer you don't want. Then there are the divisions of marketing, IT, customer care, etc. "It's time someone stepped back and said what are we doing with this?" Kannan says.

The end-customer complaint that Indian call centers are frustratingly "process-driven"

The process complaint is a problem with any call center, whether located in Chennai or Chatanooga. The process issue just comes to the fore when "the caller also thinks, this guy doesn't understand me so he's being mechanical." The issue is that is what those call center agents are compensated for: adherence to process. "You get dinged if you don't say, 'Is there anything else I can help you with at the end of the call, even if you can tell by their tone that they're in a hurry and just want to hang up," says Kannan. "It gets subtracted in your QA score and you lose some portion of your variable pay." Call handle time is also important: "You have to finish the call so you stick to the process."

So who's fault is that? Kannan says 24/7 is working on predictive customer service, doing data modeling on customer behavior so they know the issues a customer is likely to have, say, within the first 72 hours of purchasing a product. But even the seemingly simple things, like giving an account number or your mother's maiden name, takes up time. And then, of course, there's the issue of typing your account number into a phone keypad or recording it by IVR... then having to repeat it again when the live agent gets on the line.

If you could actually get that out of the way via automation, that would give call center workers time to have those human conversations and solve problems. But that doesn't happen largely due to systems and processes on the client side of the outsourcing relationship. "A lot of companies are acquiring all the time," says Kannan. "They're always tying up systems and haven't completed the last integration. They never have time to catch up so they give up on functionality." Citigroup may need to open a call center in Florida, like, yesterday, so they put in some phones and put some people in there to answer them. Or a customer of 24/7 may not have fully upgraded to Siebel. Thus, the call to customer service is never quite seamless.

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