The Bangalore Backlash: Call Centers Return to U.S.

Michael Tarwater trains at a Dell call center in Oklahoma City.
Michael Tarwater trains at a Dell call center in Oklahoma City. (Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

If you prefer a customer service agent who speaks "American," then computer maker Dell has a deal for you.

Catering to consumers put off by the accents of Bangalore, Manila and other call-center hubs around the globe, Dell will guarantee -- for a price -- that the person who picks up the phone on a support call will be, as company ads mention in bold text, "based in North America."

The Your Tech Team service, with agents in the United States, costs $12.95 a month for customers with a Dell account, or $99 a year for people who buy a new computer. It also promises that wait times will average two minutes or less. Without the upgrade, a customer is likely to get technical help from someone in India, the Philippines or the other places where Dell has operators.

By charging customers extra for a North American voice, Dell's program represents a novel strategy for easing the strains of globalization while maintaining profit, industry officials said.

Occasionally, "we've heard from customers that it's hard to understand a particular accent and that they couldn't understand the instructions they were getting," said Dell spokesman Bob Kaufman. "This illustrates Dell's commitment to customer choice."

Complaints about customer service agents based in other countries are an everyday phenomenon across several industries. For many U.S. consumers, the diverse accents that come across customer service lines constitute one of the most pervasive reminders of globalization and the offshoring of jobs. That can make personnel in the call center targets for American anger.

Companies can save 50 to 75 percent on their call centers by putting them overseas, according to industry analysts.

But getting a customer service agent with whom it is easy to communicate ought to be a service that is provided gratis, some industry analysts said.

"Most people in the customer service world believe that if you have sold me a product, then support for that product should be free," said Lyn Kramer, managing director of Kramer and Associates, a call-center consultancy.

Jitterbug, a cellphone company that markets to older Americans, similarly boasts in ads that its operators are in the United States, but it does not charge extra to speak to them. The company's television spots advertise "U.S. based customer service" and show a headset draped in an American flag.

"You'd be amazed how many customers ask, 'Where are you based?' " said David Inns, Jitterbug's chief executive. "The response we get when we say, 'We're in Auburn Hills, Michigan, ma'am,' -- well, they love it."

Although airlines, banks and some retailers have overseas call centers, computer makers have been particularly apt to put call centers in foreign countries. According to an online survey conducted by CFI Group, more than a third of respondents who recently made a call for computer support reported that the person they reached was outside the United States.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company