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.
The customer satisfaction score for overseas PC call centers was 23 percent lower than for U.S. call centers, CFI Group reported.
"The customers say, 'The agent just doesn't understand what I'm trying to do,' " Kramer said. "The customer explains his or her request three or four times, and then they get a rote answer back."
Many companies, she said, have "escalation procedures" to use when callers struggle to communicate; eventually, many such calls are routed back to the United States.
Though some have suggested that the friction between U.S. consumers and foreign operators arises from prejudice, some observers see it differently.
"I hear people say all the time that people who complain about call centers in India are being racist or nativist -- but it's not as simple as that," said Sharmila Rudrappa, a sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin and native of Bangalore, India. "If you need tech support, it already shows you're having a crazy time getting your Dell computer to work. And when things go haywire, you want assurance, you want familiarity, you want someone to hold your hand and say it's okay. What you don't want is to have to work at understanding the person on the other end of the line."
Deepak Desai, chief executive of GlobalEnglish, a company that sells a program to improve the business-English skills of overseas workers, attributed at least some of the problem to the fact that call center industry has grown so fast in India that the companies have had trouble recruiting employees who have mastered the language.
"There's a large chunk of people who can communicate in English somewhat, but if you put them on a call interacting with an angry American -- that's hard," he said.
Though the job puts them in contact with people halfway around the world who are often upset about something -- a missed reservation, a technical problem, an accounting snafu -- many in developing countries consider such a spot in a call center "a good job," Desai said. They try to learn American slang, to say "zee" instead of "zed," and they take on American-sounding nicknames such as Jimmy.
"People in the developing countries are hungry for any material that will improve their skills," Desai said. "There's a real hunger to improve. It's not that we want these people to be speaking with an American accent. We want them to be intelligible."
Enough Americans are frustrated by them, however, that companies such as Jitterbug have concluded that keeping their call centers in the United States is the best option.
Inns said the company briefly considered putting call center overseas -- he, too, had heard that costs could be radically cut.
But he said those estimates leave out the cost of frustrating customers.
"What's missing from those estimates is what the impact is on customer satisfaction and what is the impact on first-call resolution" -- that is, resolving the issue in one try.
"This is not a protectionist philosophy," he said. "At the end of the day, my data and experience say that Americans are better at providing customer service to Americans -- that's all."
Dell declined to release numbers on how many people had signed up for the Your Tech Team service, but Kaufman said officials have been pleased by the response.
"That part of the business -- the Your Tech Team -- has grown, and we think that customers will continue to value it," Kaufman said.