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Outsourcing > Book Reviews > Global Call Centres: Achieving Outstanding Customer Service across Cultures and Time Zones >

Global Call Centres: Achieving Outstanding Customer Service across Cultures and Time Zones

By Erik Granered
2005 Nicholas Brealey, Boston/London
206 pages, US$34.95

Review by Madanmohan Rao (madan@techsparks.com

Companies around the world are joining the services revolution, and are locating or outsourcing business activities like customer call centres to destinations around the world ranging from Ireland to India. Though technology has helped make this offshoring transition seamless, the key ingredient – successful inter-cultural communication – is often ignored.

This guidebook makes a useful contribution to the literature on outsourcing by focusing on customer expectations in different cultures around the world, and how they can be addressed by pro-active culture change programmes in customer service delivery, choice of call centre location, and effective call centre managers.

Erik Granered, a consultant based in Virginia, has over 15 years of experience in business communications, including call centre training at WorldCom. The book is also endorsed by the Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI) and the publication “Call Centre Management Review.”

Though global telecom developments have helped facilitate international call centre outsourcing, a “little learning can be a dangerous thing” if companies rely only on shallow knowledge of tools (like accent neutralising), the author begins. And many call centres are unfortunately referred to as “high-tech sweatshops.”

But for effective call centre operations, cultural knowledge and awareness must trickle down from executive and management levels, and must be reinforced by a deep understanding of the dynamics of cross-cultural interaction, customer service discourse, and management incentives.

The 11 chapters in the book are divided into three sections: customer interaction, call centre dynamics, and customer service strategies for different language groups. A number of useful resources and URLs are identified (including the author’s blog at www.granered.net/booklog), such as “Call Centre Management on Fast Forward” (by Brad Cleveland and Julia Mayben), “Situational Leadership” (by Ken Blanchard), “Leapfrogging Development: The Political Economy of Telecommunications Restructuring” (by J.P. Singh) and the American Society of Training and Development’s “State of the Industry Report.”

Call centre proliferation in the US over the past few decades was spurred by technological developments like toll-free (1-800) services and regulatory changes to allow multiple telecom networks to participate in this call routing. By 1998, there were an estimated 80,000 call centres in the US.

Overseas locations ranging from Ireland and Israel to India and the Philippines then began to take off, thanks to the availability of language skills, lower wages and quality work. Emerging enabling technologies include trouble ticketing systems, agent monitoring software, VoIP, speech recognition, and multi-channel solutions blending voice, Web and chat.

According to research firm Datamonitor, in 2004 there were 4.78 million call centre workers worldwide, with 2.82 million in the US alone. McKinsey predicts that offshoring will grow by 30 to 40 per cent per year for the next several years.

There will undoubtedly be political fallout as jobs relocate to other countries, but this affects not just developed but developing countries as well (eg. relocation from Mexico to China). But it is unlikely that legislation will significantly slow down offshoring trends, according to the author.

A number of case studies are provided in the book, of successful offshoring as well as the cultural obstacles that can arise. For instance, Dell routes 15 per cent of individual customer calls to India; despite occasional complaints about accents and competence levels for services to business customers, it has focused on improving operations there rather than completely reversing course. Some companies like Lehman Brothers and Shop Direct, on the other hand, did reverse their offshoring decisions.

“Realistically, it often takes many rounds of trying before companies get it right. There are costs associated with reducing costs,” the author explains. Effective inbound/outbound call centre design should address not just efficiency but quality of the customer and agent experiences, the author recommends. Companies should also keep in mind indirect impacts of offshoring, such as company reputation and corporate social responsibility. All these have serious public relations implications as well.

The author identifies numerous differences in customer expectations from around the world, based on existing literature on high/low context communications, role of gender and age, formality of addresses, and consensus/argumentative levels.

For instance, a Japanese customer might expect soft and respectful tones from an agent, whereas an American might expect the agent to take quick control and even throw in a joke. Swedes make an empathetic “ja” sound while Americans tend to say “hmmm” while listening. French customers may get distracted by accents of French Canadian agents, but British customers may prefer Jamaican accents of agents to US accents. US customers may prefer brisk approaches, but UK customers may like to be asked about the weather first.

Good customer service is reflected in empathy, enthusiasm, attitude, integrity and timing. Successful call centre operators do not indulge in “fight-or-flight” responses to difficult customer engagements, but can actually feed on the ability to handle tough situations well.

One chapter focuses on the media of customer interaction, ranging from telephone and email to Web and chat. Factors like reflective listening, blended communication, multilingual documentation, and cultural connotations of colour and tone of voice should be factored in carefully here.

An excellent chapter on cultural awareness provides multiple scenarios of communication breakdown, emotional pain and positive/negative responses in customer interaction. Awareness and affirmation are key qualities of effective customer contact agents in these situations.

The author also urges companies to develop effective customer service cultures. Agents should feel valued and have a sense of ownership of the work; they should also take service levels and quality seriously. Service levels should be realistic and well understood, and this may take significant levels of funding to nurture.

Call centre cultures themselves vary from country to country; US call centres may prefer motivational banners and bells as well as perky agents, whereas these overt signs may not translate well to other cultures like Germany. Matrix management may not work well in a hierarchical society like France. Directive approaches may be easily accepted in the US but educational approaches are better in “feminine” cultures, and “saving face” is important in cultures like Japan. Individual incentives may be preferred in the US, but group rewards may work better in Malaysia.

Cues for call centre management communication should be carefully weighed in different cultural settings, such as early morning meetings, walking around, encouragement, acknowledgement, listening, training, leading and motivating.

Call centres can be effectively managed if adequate attention and resources are devoted to strategic call centre training, organisational learning and organisational development. Agent learning has to be marketed and promoted in the institution. Blended approaches of classroom instruction, e-learning, learning by doing and coaching are recommended here.

The “3 Cs” of successful call centre training are continuous, contextual and cost-effective. These approaches can help reduce employee turnover from existing levels of 21 per cent in US call centres. Examples of successful and respected training programs include the Disney Institute and Ritz-Carlton’s Leadership Institute.

The four levels of call centre training evaluation include learner reaction (measured by training evaluation), retention (measured by post-tests), learner behaviour (quality monitoring) and business impact (customer surveys).

Part III of the book offers useful decision tables for selection of customer care offerings based on price sensitivity of industry, repeat customers, high-volume items and product differentiation. Choice of a specific target country for locating a call centre should depend on customer profile, geographic footprint, customer/agent languages, technology availability, anticipated call volume, employee skills, political risks, and budget.

Four chapters cover service centre options for English, Spanish, Europe and Asia. Interesting cultural and communication profiles are drawn up for India, Ireland, UK, US, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, China and Singapore. Comparisons are made with respect to communication style, body language, liveliness, humour, formality, notions of personal space, opinionated behaviours, and even “bullshit radar!”

In sum, if done right, nowhere do companies have a greater opportunity for creating a positive impact than in the call centre, where technology is enabling human interaction on a massive scale – across the globe, every minute of every hour.


Madanmohan Rao is the editor of “The Knowledge Management Chronicles”

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