Agent Training, not Location, Key to Call Center Success

Ann All

Way back in 2007 I wrote a post in which I asked whether promoting local call centers was xenophobia or just good business as many customers seem to prefer working with contact center agents who speak their own language. About a year later, I wrote about the Black Book of Outsourcing's contention that a growing number of U.S. and European companies were returning offshored customer-service functions to their home countries.


The trend hasn't reversed, based on a recent report by the CFI Group, the organization that created the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) methodology. According to its latest Call Center Satisfaction Index report, 9 percent of consumers said their most recent call center experience was handled by an offshore agent, down from 15 percent in 2008. (It's worth noting this is based on consumer perception, rather than where calls were actually answered.)


Sheri Teodoru, CFI Group's CEO, said the findings aren't a surprise, especially since high unemployment tends to make folks more sensitive to the idea of outsourced jobs. Putting politics aside, consumers just aren't as happy with calls handled by offshore agents. The study found call center satisfaction was 58 out of 100 for calls handled by an offshore agent, vs. a score of 79 for U.S.-based agents.


The single biggest frustration with offshore agents is difficulty understanding them due to foreign accents, according to the survey. The survey also found U.S. agents are 34 percent more likely to solve a problem on the first call than their foreign counterparts. Call resolution is more important than where call centers are located, Teodoru told me when I interviewed her in 2008. She described an incident in which her complicated billing issue was almost immediately transferred to a second agent by the person who answered the call. She said:

It was clear that I had been transitioned to someone else, who was able to solve the problem right then and there. Would it have been great to have my problem solved by the person that picked the phone up? Yeah, but did I really care about the few seconds it took that person to realize they couldn't help me and to transfer me? No, and I'll still go back. And I think the vast majority of people would do the same thing.

The importance of training agents to boost the success rate of first-call resolution was mentioned by several folks commenting on a post titled "Do Americans Prefer American Call Center Agents?" on the website of RiverStar, a provider of customer-service software. Wrote Heidi Miller:

I prefer competent agents. I don't care where they are located as long as they can help me in an efficient and polite manner. I've had American agents who were unable to help in any way that led to endless frustration; I've been connected with agents with Indian accents who rectified my issue within a matter of minutes. And vice-versa. I suspect that you showed some insight when asking, "So, do I associate the poor experience with the location of the agent, or the solution that they are using?" I know if I call Zappos that I'll get an agent who was offered $2,000 to leave the training program, just to make sure he really believes strongly in the corporate culture of customer service. I also know a few companies (who shall remain nameless) that put the absolute minimum into their call centers, both in terms of technology and training, and I know that contacting customer service will be a nightmare, no matter where the call center is located.

And from Michel Geraghty, who says he's worked in the leadership of an organization with contact center agents based both in India and in North America:

Would a NA-based customer prefer to speak to a NA-based agent? In most cases yes, but what they really want is someone that can address the issue in a rapid manner and to be treated with a professional attitude. Often the location of the agent is far less important than the technical skills of the agent.

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