The other day, after her cell phone stopped working during a trip, Beth Tomlinson used a pay phone to call her cell-phone carrier. Her call, like so many others around the world, was answered in Noida, an outsourcing-driven boom town about 20 kilometers outside New Delhi. Tomlinson, a Kansas-native who has lived in India for several years, didn't really care. After all, she was in Noida, too.
But when 20 minutes with a nervous operator went by and her cell phone still didn't work, Tomlinson did start to care. "I've called my American cell-phone company and had the call answered in Noida, and I've called my Indian cell phone company and had the call answered in Noida," she says. "But there is such a huge difference in the quality of service. I could hear kids laughing and giggling in the back, and I needed to get to an important work meeting right away."
Since the late 1990s, when cheap Internet telephony made it possible for U.S. companies to outsource their call centers, Americans have been complaining, loudly and regularly, about the quality of service. Just last week, Delta (DAL) pulled a call center out of India because its customers said they hated the service. "The customer acceptance of call centers in foreign countries is low," Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson told his employees in a message. "Our customers are not shy about letting us have that feedback."
Indians are speaking out, too. In India's outsourcing world, the call-center industry, which employs as many as half a million people, is bifurcated. The better-paid, better-trained, and English-speaking operators typically go right to foreign-service call centers, and the lower-paid, not as well-trained, mostly local language speaking operators stay at locally targeted call centers.
The results, predictably, have been lower quality of service for Indians as they try to navigate their cell-phone plans, their credit-card bills, or their flight reservations. "It took me three years to get a job with foreign clients," says Manish Tripathi, a 24-year-old call-center worker who asked that his employer's name not be mentioned. "And the difference was vast. Every day, they trained us on the software, the computers were better, even the telephones were nicer."
It makes economic sense, of course; foreign clients pay more than Indian clients do, sometimes by as much as 50% for total contracts, which are often decided by the number of "seats" that an operator has to fill to service a contract. Some Indian call centers, especially the ones set up in rural areas for low-cost government contracts, pay as little as $75 a month to its workers. That's a respectable living for a young person in a village, but a college grad with a couple of years experience could make as much as $400 working for an English-language operator in a city.
Quality control has been an issue for many Indian call centers. With many call centers are seen as temporary jobs for college graduates looking for something better, they have higher attrition than global rates—about 50% to 60% compared with the 28% worldwide, as measured by South Africa-based Dimension. But the key issue is training and making sure the right person answers the right call, says Martin Dove, a spokesperson for Dimension Data, which surveys call centers around the world every year. "As a whole, we've seen customer satisfaction stay relatively steady," he says, citing figures that slipped only slightly from 82% in 2006 to about 80% in 2008. "It's not answering a call quickly, but making sure that when it is answered, i…when the caller starts speaking, he is speaking to a person who has the right tools, the right training to solve the problem."
That doesn't necessarily mean call centers have the real issue—keeping customers happy—figured out. After all, call centers' real clients are the companies to which they sell contracts, not the people who call them for help. Dimension Data found that the $130 billion industry has been slow to figure out how to measure customer satisfaction, instead focusing on cost-cutting and efficiencies.
Taking Training Seriously
In the six years that Seattle-based Hyperquality has been in business, it has listened to over 5 million calls between customers and agents, trying to help some of American's largest companies figure out how to keep customers satisfied. The biggest issue, says Chris Coles, Hyperquality's CEO, is training, but in some cases, accents and cultural sensitivity also come into play.
But for Indian call centers that serve Indian clients, Coles says the issue is basic: pay and prestige. "Folks in the contact-center industry are always looking for an improvement in compensation and status," he says. "There is certainly a food chain, so the effect is that talented folks that may enter in the domestic sector are looking for ways to move themselves [to] foreign language."
Unlike in the U.S., complaints in India are not about the fact that jobs have gone overseas, of course, or about accent or language. Instead, like Americans, Indians just want quick service. "It is unbelievable sometimes," says Anupam Mathur, who manages several bank accounts for his employer, a New Delhi-based furniture company. "They don't understand my questions, they don't have any answers, they don't have the authority to solve my problems."
To some extent, business is aware of the issue. Express courier service DHL's India operations made a big splash two years ago when it promised that every call would be answered by a real live person within three rings, a promise that DHL says it largely delivers on. "The customers love it, they really do," says Sheba Varghese, a spokesperson for DHL. "They don't have to press a 1, then a 2, then a 3. They speak to someone right away."
That someone, by the way, is in Cyberjaya, Malaysia.
Srivastava reports for BusinessWeek from New Delhi.