Address IT Culture, not Just Foreign Culture, with Offshore Agents

Ann All

A few months ago I wrote a post in which I made the point that an offshore contact center agent's ability to resolve a problem on the first call would probably overcome any bias from Western customers who might prefer their calls to be handled onshore.


According to a Call Center Satisfaction Index report by the CFI Group, the organization that created the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) methodology, U.S. agents are 34 percent more likely to solve a problem on the first call than their foreign counterparts. That figure may have something to do with the satisfaction score of 58 out of 100 calls handled by an offshore agent, vs. a score of 79 for U.S.-based agents.


While call resolution is important, however, it doesn't cancel out the need for simple courtesy and strong communication skills. Both should be stressed in training programs for all contact centers, no matter where agents are located.


My colleague Susan Hall certainly feels strongly about this, after two recent tech support calls regarding Microsoft Security Essentials, the anti-malware program on her son's laptop.


The laptop was infected with a nasty piece of malware called Security Shield. As Susan said:

Lots of popups saying it had detected all these viruses and click to remove them. Of course, once you clicked, it wanted $80 a month and also was installing more malware. Locked up everything you tried to do on the machine.

Frustrated, Susan called support from Microsoft Security Essentials, which hadn't detected Security Shield.


On her first call, Susan believed the agent was in India "because the phone line was so bad" and she had difficulty understanding the agent. He was "quite patient," however. He began a scan he told Susan would detect and remove all the malware. After running for an hour, Susan got a message that no malware was detected. "Still got rampant Security Shield popups," said Susan, so she called back.


The phone connection was better and the second agent's English was clearer, though Susan believes the call was still handled offshore. It took an hour and resulted in success, but Susan was far from happy with her experience.


Among several remarks that Susan found insulting: "You can do it, Susan. It's really not that hard." "Surely you can find the delete key, Susan." She appreciated he also said things like: "I'm sorry this malware is frustrating you" and "I really appreciate your patience with this." Her overall impression, however, was that the agent was "totally condescending."


She shared her impressions with me, since she knows I write about offshoring, contact centers and customer service, among other topics. Her take on the call:

That's surely an issue with offshoring your company's help desk. You can hire people with the right technical skills and knowledge, but there can still be cultural issues that will torpedo the whole deal.

In further discussion with Susan, she wasn't certain cultural bias was to blame. She acknowledged she's encountered similar treatment from agents she believed were located in the U.S. (Obviously, it's not always easy to pinpoint an agent's location. Offshore agents try to minimize their accents and often adopt Western names to use at work. With the cultural diversity in the U.S., it's possible that an agent with an accent is in the States.)


Though Susan felt the agent's condescension was due to her gender, I found an article from an Indian author indicating there is less discrimination against women in today's Indian society. It's possible the agent had a bad day and was letting a bad mood affect his work. Or that he is under pressure to take lots of calls, still the predominant metric in contact centers, and thus was as frustrated as Susan by the length of the call.


Tellingly, Susan said poor treatment was "what you expect when you call tech support." Ah-hah.


Many IT pros, whether working internal or external help desks, need training on creating a customer-centric culture. Sure, some users are so clueless they'd challenge even the most patient agent trying to fix their problems. But even users who are fairly tech savvy can become flustered under pressure, as Susan did. Basic customer service skills can go a long way toward putting folks seeking help more at ease, which should help calls go more smoothly.

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