Major brands are reportedly closing their call centres in India and returning to the UK. What is going wrong? And will returning them to the UK really make a difference?
By Jonathan Gabay, Brand Forensics
Everyone is talking about call centres returning to the UK from overseas outposts such as India. But before anyone raises a bottle of champagne won as an incentive for prompt call responses, think again. The homecoming will need more than an army of locals in the UK to improve the plight of customers as well as increase employment prospects for UK call centre managers and teams.
Major brands returning some call centre work back to the UK are thought to include Norwich Union, Newcastle Building Society, Powergen and HBoS-backed esure which also owns the ‘Sheila's Wheels’ brand. Reportedly, HBoS originally left the UK shores because it couldn’t recruit enough staff in and around Manchester. Staffing is just one of the motives for companies to go ‘long distance’.
Many placed the ‘holy grail’ of enticing cost savings before practical customer support and satisfaction. That compromised call management. The entire call experience went from one of delight to dread; directly affecting customer perceptions and so bottom-line profits. In some notable cases, Indian operators were so poor at understanding basic queries that conversations sounded more like comedy routines. For example, in one infamous case, a customer told the operator he had a hatchback only for the operator in India to reply "I'm terribly sorry, I hope you get better soon."
According to a recent survey by YouGov, only 4 percent of people enjoyed their experience when dealing with a call centre. Over 50 percent of respondents complained that their most maddening issue was contacting call centres based outside the UK. Their aggravation levels were such that more than a third admitted to swearing at agents.
Some commentators have put the complaints down to feeble-minded xenophobia. However, as the rallying cause to bring call centres home has expanded from the pages of The Mail on Sunday to the wider general public, it would appear that there is a universal desire to speak to a real person who understands what is required and has the abilities to do something about it.
The next problem relates to local telephony infrastructures. Soaring hidden technical expenses appeared more like ‘additional unaccounted sundry items’ left off government estimates for holding the Olympic Games. Then there were the costs to relocate UK managers… And the bill kept swelling.
But arguably the biggest casualties of all the commotion surrounding call centres have been brand reputations. Once a reputation tumbles, people talk. That tittle-tattle tends to linger. (Bad news always travels faster and further than good).
Cognitive behaviour of the customer
As a communication expert, part of my job is to pinpoint where things may have gone astray with brand communications. In the case of call centres, I believe that part of the problem wasn’t so much to do with just issues concerning call centre stalwarts such as ‘friendliness’ and ‘courtesy’. It related more to something psychologists call ‘cognitive behaviour’.
This is how it works: a person convinces himself that something is going to occur, even if in reality the evidence to support such a thought doesn’t really stack up. Once this person gets into a pattern of thinking, he finds it extremely difficult to break the habit. The first stage to that conditioning could be a prompt like a sound, shape, event…
In the case of call centres, for many it may have been the pre-recorded “press one, press two, press three…” For most, whilst such pre-recorded instructions may be irritating, and certainly a sound of the times, they represent everyday niggles in life that we all simply put up with. However, add a second ‘reinforcing’ conditioning aspect to the scenario and things become more complex.
In this case, the long wait for someone to actually answer - perhaps incorporating the sound of ‘music on hold’. Finally, to really exacerbate issues, add to the mix a voice from an operator clearly speaking from an overseas call centre and - irrespective of the operator’s actual abilities, which may be extremely impressive - before another word is uttered, the caller relates the voice as a signifier of ‘yet another big company employing overseas staff in a bid to save money at my expense’. Result? At best, mild impatience, at worsst outright frustration.
Some brands, like over-50s holiday and insurance company Saga, adhere to a UK-only policy. It says that outsourcing could have saved 65p on the cost of an average call, but its customers enjoyed chatting to someone who could understand them. NatWest also prides itself in basing its call centre activities in the UK.
Whilst both instances are laudable, every brand still needs to heed a simple warning: having call centres in the UK is no guarantee of customer satisfaction. It's risky using the fact to differentiate yourself from competitors. If people still can't get through, it doesn't matter if the person they are hanging on for is in the UK or India: it's not where you are but what you know that matters.
Recently it was reported that China is catching up with India’s call centre boom, offering cost-effective outsourcing services to US-based companies. According to Callcenters.net, an Asian research firm, China's call centre industry is set to grow 22 percent this year, reaching 158,000, up from 130,000 last year. If British firms embrace this as another source to cut costs and companies head further East, call centre staff back in the UK may be left to cheer themselves up with little more than a glass of tart rice wine, rather than an honest pint at the local.
Jonathan Gabay is founder of Brand Forensics. Gabay is also on the central faculty of the Chartered Insititute of Marketing, the world’s biggest marketing institute, and is an author of 12 books with experience of working for some of the best-known creative agencies and brands in the industry.
Read more features, practical case studies and white papers about contact centres.