The Thorny Cultural Thicket of Outsourcing, Part 1

American consumers would rather have to deal with a rude or condescending customer service agent on the phone than one who speaks with a foreign accent, according to a survey released earlier this year.

The survey, which was conducted for NetReflector, a provider of customer feedback applications, seemed to indicate that the arguments against outsourcing of certain operations — from manufacturing to customer service to back office — had hit a new low.

Respondents ranked speaking English with an accent as the worst possible flaw — not only over agent rudeness, but also over excessive wait time on hold and sales spiels that force callers to become captive listeners before they can move to the next step.

No doubt there was a touch of xenophobia driving those findings, as well as a healthy dose of fear over losing a job to a foreign counterpart. However, people that work in the outsourced customer service space offer an alternative and intriguing explanation for the trend, which has led to firms such as Dell reducing their customer care operations in foreign locations.

It’s Not How You Say It

“I don’t think the issue is culture or the difference in time zones or even the accent,” Patrick Morrissey, senior vice president of Savvion, tells CRM Buyer. “Rather, the issue is, is the rep equipped to solve the problem when the customer calls? Can he or she fix the frozen computer or find out where the order is?”

Too often, Morrissey continues, that answer is no.

“It’s not that the customer doesn’t like the accent. The issue really is, the rep doesn’t know the customer, doesn’t understand the problem, and is not equipped to solve it anyway.” The simplistic explanation for the customer’s frustration — according to this view — then becomes the accent.

As it happens, more and more firms — while still in the minority — are beginning to address this particular pain point by better planning their outsourcing operations from the beginning.

“There is a maturation in the outsourcing world, moving away from the tactical approach in which firms first look at with whom they should partner,” says Jonathan James, vice president of Syntel, an outsourcing company with operations in India.

“Now, more firms are looking at why they should outsource in the beginning of the process, asking themselves what is the most important driver to them,” he tells CRM Buyer. “Is it better productivity? Easier access to hard-to-find skills in the home market? The ability to free up IT staff for more creative projects?” There is no one right answer, he says — but whatever that answer is will shape the outsourcing process.

Shape-Shifting Problems

There do exist, however, cultural issues that companies must consider when outsourcing operations. The tricky part is recognizing which can be detrimental to operations and which — like accented English — are merely symptoms of greater problems.

Martin Migoya, CEO of Globant, a provider of software development and related services in Argentina, tells of a U.S. client — a major search engine provider — for which it had developed an application. Once it was ready to be tested and go into production, though, a problem arose.

The customer, it turned out, also wanted Globant to push the application through to live use — only it hadn’t authorized the firm to get that level of access to its system or provided much in the way of specific details about that aspect of the project.

Such glitches and miscommunications are common in outsourcing relationships, Migoya tells CRM Buyer. Within a company — or even with a locally based outsourcer — such a glitch might not cause too much grief. Add thousands of miles of distance and a possible language barrier to the equation, though, and it becomes a different story. Globant, however, pushed through the firm’s hierarchy to get to the correct person in order to finish the job.

The Real Communication Problem

Communication problems due to cultural differences are often at the heart of a failed relationship with an outsourcer, James says.

“For instance, in India, it can be a sign of disrespect to disagree with the client. A programmer might well have a better idea of how to do something, but he is not likely to speak up.”

Conversely, many Indian firms are reluctant to say “no” to work, James continues. “This can cause big problems too, as you can imagine, if a project is already behind and the client asks the company to do even more work.”

None of these barriers are insurmountable, experts say. Addressing them, however, involves more than just a training video on cultural differences and lessons for contact center reps on how to pronounce American names.

The Thorny Cultural Thicket of Outsourcing, Part 2

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