When companies started building call centers offshore

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Monday, October 30, 2006
Do call centers have to be so infuriating?
By Sarmad Ali
When companies started building call centers offshore
records how many times callers were transferred or put
But if the question is unpredictable and there is no
and shipping work to outsourcers thousands of miles
on hold, for how long they were on hold -- and what
stock answer, the query will be forwarded to a live
away, it was hailed as a great way to cut costs.
the agent was doing on his or her screen while the call
agent.This agent can often handle several real-time chat
was in progress. About 150 companies are using NICE
sessions at once efficiently and accurately and with cus-
Perform's emotional detector, including FedEx Corp.'s
tomized information.This reduces personnel costs and
FedEx Custom Critical unit, says Eyal Danon, vice presi-
provides a service many customers prefer, the company
dent of marketing communications at NICE Systems.
Convergys Corp., a Cincinnati-based call-center opera-
However, some analysts say using email and chat can't
tor with offshore operations, uses an in-house product
be a panacea for call-center problems. Email responses,
with artificial intelligence to help agents assist cus-
for example, though sometimes automated, don't
tomers.The product, called Agent Voice Assist, is an
always provide an immediate answer. If a customer is
automated system that monitors contact between cus-
dealing with a bank, for instance, and wants to stop pay-
tomer-service reps and the customers, similar to the
ment on a check, it could take a few days for the bank
way supervisors randomly listen in on calls into a serv-
to respond to the request.This is why financial institu-
ice center. While a call is still in progress, the application
tions have not adopted email, says Esteban Kolsky, a
uses speech-recognition software to distinguish what
research director in Reno, Nev., for Gartner Inc.
But over time, many companies were inundated with
customer complaints about agents' competence, professionalism and knowledge of products.There were also
cultural hurdles and miscommunications, including difficulty understanding different accents.
Today offshore outsourcers face too much competition
not to focus on improving their service, while keeping
costs down, too, of course. In addition to India and the
Philippines, new centers are spreading to countries like
Colombia and Brazil. Some companies are even moving
resources back to the U.S., aided by cost reductions
achieved through Internet telephony.
Faced with new pressures, offshore resourcers are striv-
Convergys calls "reasonable" speech from speech indi-
ing to make their agents and the processing of calls
cating dissatisfaction. Once a conversation crosses over
more efficient through new telecommunications and
that line, the system flags the call to be taken over by
computer technologies.They are spending more time
another agent or sent to another department.
and money training agents, and trying to retain the
more talented ones by offering incentives including
higher salaries, gifts and educational opportunities.
Chat sessions also have their flaws. Because the agent
and the customer type out their questions and answers,
the exchange is a little less personal than having an individual's attention on the phone. And if the interaction
Another in-house software system at Convergys uses
becomes complex, it sometimes is more cumbersome
speech recognition to speed up service by pushing to
than handling the problem by talking. Chat can also be
the computer screens of the agents the information
unpopular among people who are bad at typing or who
Many of the software solutions involve automation.
most relevant to a caller's needs. For example, if a caller
have trouble using computers.
NICE Systems Ltd., of Israel, for example, sells software
wants to update his or her address, the agent says
that helps identify patterns in the needs customers are
"update address." The system then brings up the
reporting. In 2004, the company launched NICE
address-change page immediately without the agent
Perform, an automated system that digitally records
having to go through menus to reach it, thus speeding
conversations between customers and agents and then
scans them for certain words. If a customer says "cancel," for example, the software flags the conversation
and sends a report to the management of that company so it can find out more about the customer's dissatisfaction.The identity of the caller is recorded as well,
and a supervisor from the client company will call the
customer asking why he or she was upset, and hopefully
offer a solution.
up the call.
Help Yourself
In addition to automated tools, some outsourcers are
using systems that employ self-service, like email and
chat sessions, in which customers type their questions in
a window on the Web site, and an agent writes back in
real time -- hopefully, with helpful answers. Convergys,
for its part, uses chat sessions that combine both
automation and live agents. Frequent customer ques-
In the Mood
tions posed in chat sessions -- such as "How do I
NICE Perform also can track the emotions of cus-
update my billing address?" -- receive automated
tomers and agents during the course of a call, based on
changes in pitch, flow and rhythm of the voices. It also
"Most companies expect that chat and email will
replace phones [in call centers], but that's not happening," says Mr. Kolsky. Currently only 5% of customers
seeking help from an outsourced call center use chat
and 10% to 15% use email, he says.
SlashSupport Inc., a global technical-support outsourcer
that says it handles about 1.5 million calls a month, is a
big advocate of self-service tools.The company, which is
based in San Jose, Calif., and has operations in India,
uses one-minute, how-to video clips on its site to
answer some inquiries by showing rather than telling.
Right now, only 5% of SlashSupport customers use
video clips -- mostly consumer-electronics companies,
says Chief Executive Shiva Ramani. But the visual
approach is starting to gain momentum, he says,
because customers feel more comfortable and
Monday, October 30, 2006
informed looking at a video rather than hearing instruc-
viduals, and overall targets met by teams.The company
tions on the phone.There also is no waiting on hold for
says it encourages its teams to always implement new
an agent.
programs to recognize and reward its best performers.
Mr. Ramani expects that 40% to 50% of his company's
Some Come Home
technical support will ultimately be delivered by Web-
All of these improvements, meanwhile, haven't stopped
based video. In addition to the benefits for the cus-
some companies from deciding to return call-center
tomers, there are huge cost savings. Instructions given
resources to the U.S. and countries closer to home.
over the phone can cost as much as 60% more than
Some now rely on offshore outsourcers for only part of
the same help delivered in a video, says Mr. Ramani.The
their services, such as email and Web-based chats, while
phone call may cost the company $7 to $10, which
basing their call centers in the U.S.This eliminates the
includes labor, equipment and other costs, the company
potential for cultural and language gaps, while reducing
says. A video demonstration, however, has a one-time
exposure to criticisms about sending U.S. jobs overseas.
production cost, after which there is no ongoing labor
It also mitigates the risk of putting your company's
cost.The Internet-related costs, too, of downloading and
whole service operation in a distant and possibly lesssecure part of the world, says Zachary McGeary, an
playing the video, are next to nothing.
Be Happy
While more automation is coming, call centers know
their fortunes also are riding on the quality of their customer representatives. When companies started work-
example, has come up with a Reward and Recognition
ance.The objective is not only to help in promoting
healthy competition but also to instill "a feeling of
belonging and trust," says Mr. Contractor.
the right agents. Now the companies make potential
The company is also trying to illuminate a future career
agents go through intensive screening and training
path in IT by offering scholarships to its high-performing
before they begin to handle customer calls.
agents for distance-learning programs. And Wipro BPO
gives agents the freedom to submit cost-saving ideas or
Calif., which has 7,000 employees in the U.S., India, the
Philippines and Guatemala, uses speech-evaluation pro-
Also fueling this trend is the growing use of Internet
telephony. By using VOIP, companies can route incoming
phone calls to agents best able to resolve customer
issues wherever the agents are, at a fraction of the cost
ing offshore, they did a poor job of picking and training
One company, 24/7 Customer Inc., based in Los Gatos,
analyst at JupiterResearch in New York.
Policy for recognizing exceptional employee perform-
propose ideas that enable positive change. "We believe
that people who do the job know best how to improve
it," Mr. Contractor says.
grams during recruitment. Potential agents are checked
of traditional circuit-switched technology.
The number of home-based U.S. outsourced agents is
expected to more than double to 300,000 by 2010
from nearly 140,000 today, according to IDC, a research
firm based in Framingham, Mass.
Still, no one expects the trend toward offshore expansion to abate anytime soon. Convergys, for example, has
for pronunciation, vocal quality and clarity in thought
At 24/7 Customer, there are now rewards programs for
and speech. Even after agents are hired, speech-evalua-
staff including cash prizes or electronic devices such as
tion programs are still regularly conducted. Agents are
iPods. And annually the company recognizes its top-
given dialogue sheets to practice handling phone calls,
notch employees in an Oscar-like ceremony in front of
while software rates whether they will be understood
thousands of employees and their families.
by native English speakers.
On a day-to-day basis, meanwhile, the company is
company also said it was building two new facilities in
Wipro BPO Solutions, based in Mumbai, India, focuses
working on retaining its better employees by focusing
the Philippines, bringing its total there to five.
not just on language issues but on possible cultural gaps
on talent development and providing growth opportu-
between callers and employees
nities.The company has worked with a business school
Hoshedar Contractor, general manager of Wipro BPO, a
division of Wipro Ltd. of Bangalore, India.The company
coaches its employees on topics like U.S. geography and
ing postgraduate degrees, and it encourages agents to
work in cross-functional areas such as marketing or
management to expand their opportunities and expertise.
holidays such as Thanksgiving, Mr. Contractor says, "so
that when American customers call around that time of
Equinox Corp., an outsourcer based in Irvine, Calif.,
year, agents can wish them a happy holiday and assist
offers a variety of incentive programs including mone-
them faster." By comparison, he adds, "just addressing or
tary rewards to motivate and retain its talented
solving a problem may sound robotic and scripted."
employees.The company has designed a Variable
Incentive Compensation Policy to reward its high-per-
After recruiting and training, the challenge is to retain
their more-talented staff.To that end, Wipro BPO, for
continues to grow, according to analyst Stephen Loynd
of IDC. In July, outsourcer TeleTech Holdings Inc., based
in Englewood, Colo., opened a facility in Guadalajara,
Mexico, its third in that country. Last November, the
in India to provide executive education to agents pursu."The biggest challenge is the cultural mismatch," says
a head count of more than 10,000 people in India and
forming agents based on two levels: targets met by indi-
Not content to rest on past accomplishments, offshore
outsourcers know the race they're in is a long haul. As
Sudin Apte, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in India,
says, "Building offshore capability is a journey and not a
quick fix."