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Rich Tehrani


Keeping Up With
The Call Center

By: Rich Tehrani, Group Editor-in-Chief,
Technology Marketing Corporation


This past month, I have seen a plethora of call center articles in all different kinds of newspapers and magazines. Lately, I have noticed more and more call center coverage appearing in the general media. It is worth digesting some of this news, as there are some trends worth pointing out. For example, the focus on Indian call centers has increased. These stories, for a change, are not about lost jobs, but interesting aspects of Indian call center life. In a BusinessWeek article titled “Making Bangalore Sound Like Boston” (http://www.tmcnet.com/285.1), the author focuses on how call center agents in India are doing less talking and more instant messaging. This is not surprising when you consider a recent Convergys study that found that 72 percent of U.S. consumers claim they would rather use an automated system or the Web than speak with a foreign agent.

In addition, the article touches on accent training, but despite what the title of the article suggests, it seems no call center is intentionally aiming to have its call center agents sound as if they are from Boston. When I saw the headline, I was hoping I could discover a specific company to which the article was referring so I could call and ask an agent to say, “Pahk yah cah in Hahvahd yahd” in a thick Indian accent.

Based on my informal research, a U.S.-based call center adds large amounts of staff and makes headlines at least once each business day in the U.S.

TMCnet, the Web site of TMC, publisher of this magazine, also ran an interesting story recently that focused on Indian agents: “Indian Call Center Agents Suffering Health Problems Due To Caller Abuse” (http://www.tmcnet.com/286.1). The theme of this article was the excessive stress levels of Indian call center agents and how their jobs are hurting them psychologically. Female agents frequently must deal with sexual harassment, while many agents of both genders are sometimes subjected to racist comments. The situation is, in some cases, causing high turnover in Indian call centers due to the stress caused by these contentious exchanges with customers.

To combat this trend, Indian workers are in many cases assuming American names and accents, but this ruse lasts only so long, as many callers are capable of hearing the agent’s accent, despite that agent’s best efforts, and this ploy seems to make customers inclined toward abuse even angrier. Indian agents also find it very difficult in some cases to interact with Australians, as the working-class Australian accent is difficult for Indian call center agents to understand (and vice-versa). Apparently, many of these Australian-Indian calls get out of hand. (The same is also true on an anecdotal basis with British callers.)

Problems like this are pushing corporate executives in the U.S. to be more creative with how they deal with their call center agent costs. Forbes reports (http://www.tmcnet.com/287.1) that companies are beginning to explore sharing of call center workers. This is especially productive when companies have different business cycles. For example, one company may have a busy summer season, while another sees the most activity during the end of the year holiday season. A company called TARP Worldwide (http://www.tarp.com) (news - alert) is helping broker relations between companies that are looking to share call center agents.

In addition, many American companies are beginning to focus more on hiring and/or relocating call center activities in the U.S. It may be difficult to believe just how much hiring is going on in U.S. call centers. For example, Jones Lang LaSalle recently decided to relocate and expand its call center to Pittsburgh (http://www.tmcnet.com/288.1). This adds up to 233 jobs in the Pittsburgh area over the next five years. In addition, the Iowa Department of Human Services will soon set up a new inbound call center in Marshalltown, Iowa, providing 50 to 60 new area jobs (http://www.tmcnet.com/289.1). Iowa was once the hotspot for call centers — the Bangalore of the U.S., if you will. I wonder if this activity will lead to even more centers opening up in Iowa.

I recently met with an executive from a company called Movero (http://www.moverotech.com). The company is interesting for a few reasons. The first is they are transitioning their call center from Avaya to Asterisk and say they will save $1,300 per seat and will achieve better quality of service! The company has a call center that supports mobility devices. For example, if you have a problem with your Blackberry, you call RIM, and if you have a problem with your Cingular service, you call Cingular. If you don’t know where your problem lies, you call Movero, which can also support the device and wireless network problems. I asked Movero how easy it has been to build their call centers in Texas and was told that with all the call center jobs being lost to India from the Texas computer companies, they are having an easy

TMCnet Update...

TMCnet will soon be launching a special site to keep track of call center growth and expansion, both domestic and foreign. The site may be found on the following page: http://www.tmcnet.com/sectors/call-center/.


In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense will be bringing 100 jobs to the Dayton, Ohio region when it relocates its call center there (http://www.tmcnet.com/289.1). In a related story, the city of Dayton had been considered as the site for 775 financial services jobs that the Air Force will instead locate in South Dakota. A whole new area of call center growth is expected to be in the fast-food industry as new call centers are being opened to take drive-through orders. In fact, Santa Maria, California is home to a call center that serves McDonalds’ drive-through locations. I suppose this work could be done in India, as well, but given that it’s already difficult to understand workers speaking through drive-through order systems, it seems that the additional burden of understanding an accent would only exacerbate the difficulties.

In my opinion, every drive-through should have a phone number on the outside menu so customers can use their headsets and/or car audio systems to conduct clearer conversations. If the reason this isn’t done is to minimize prank calls, then what the restaurants could do is flash a code on the drive-through menu that is valid for the hour. The caller can use this code to prove he or she is, in fact, a customer in line waiting for food and not a bored high school student playing a prank.

Based on my informal research, a U.S.-based call center adds large amounts of staff and makes headlines at least once each business day in the U.S. Of course, not every call center adding personnel gets in the headlines. This growth is good news, as the call center market experienced a slowdown in 2002 and didn’t emerge from the stagnation as quickly as the VoIP market. This month, however, I have witnessed levels of optimism not seen since 1999 to 2000. It’s too soon to call this a trend, but magazine editors are generally barometers for industry optimism and pessimism as we come in contact with so many in the industry and are privy to the state-of-the-industry marketing budgets. In my opinion, marketing budgets are a great indicator of industry health, and the space seems quite robust.

I think there are two factors driving much of this interest in call center expansion. First, customers have reacted poorly to much of the outsourcing that has been done to overseas locations, so companies are now trying to improve service levels in the hopes of increasing customer retention levels. Second, there seems to be genuine excitement for the latest call center technologies, dubbed “Call Center 2.0”. Companies understand that improving their technologies can save money, increase customer satisfaction and ultimately increase sales. Call Center 2.0 technology generates positive ROI.


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