CUSTOMER magazine recently spoke with Shankaran Nair, president of corporate strategy at Servion, about trends and developments in the customer experience arena. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation.
What challenges do companies face when expanding internationally in regards to call centers and customer service personnel?
Nair: I find the question open to a couple of interpretations and I am going to respond based on the assumption that the company is planning to move its call centers/customer service personnel overseas to service a domestic market. The question comes at an interesting time when we are beginning to see reports of a phenomenon that is being called reshoring -- a move to bring jobs moved overseas back home. [That includes] jobs cutting across manufacturing to service jobs including customer service. The question also deserves considerations across a spectrum of analysis ranging from culture and strategy to cost and labor arbitrage. If I were to list the challenges I would go through the following thought/questions;How central is my customer to my organization?
This sounds like a very foolish question, but one of the stated drivers of the reshoring movement of customer service is apparently that companies are discovering that service is core to their strategy[ies] and culture and should indeed be kept in house at all costs. The fact that it has taken 15 to 20 years for this thought to sink in is itself debate worthy. But, for the moment, suffice it to say that every organization intending to offshore customer service jobs needs to be extremely comfortable with the thought that [it is] indeed handing off a very core part of [its] organization to a relative stranger.At what level of financial gain would I go ahead and take that risk?
The core driver of offshoring was labor arbitrage. Cost savings in service jobs was reported to be around 80 percent (cost difference between U.S. jobs and Indian jobs) at the start of the offshoring cycle. This is today down to less than 40 percent, and perhaps as low as 25 percent. Organizations would do well to look at a cost benefit analysis here -- and a challenge would be a realistic assessment of the cost of offshoring these jobs. What would you include in costs and how? Customer churn? Sliding CSAT scores? What mechanism would you put in place to track these against actual savings over a period of time?
A related and sequential question is: How does an organization assess customer reaction to being serviced from outside the country? Historically no organization that I know of did any such prior research with customer control groups assessing this risk. What is going to be the impact of strange accents and different cultural attitudes when an agent sitting in a faraway land meets my customer on the phone?
Summarizing: First get comfortable with the thought. Then assess the risks. And then the benefits. None of this is easy to do.
How do you decide whether your company should institute a call center/customer service hub in each location or if well-trained employees should be hired in existing locations?
Nair: My belief is that an agent/customer service professional should ideally be as close to the customer as possible culturally speaking. In an ideal world with other things being equal (salaries in different countries, cost of carrying calls) I would want agents within the country for that reason. And it would take a powerful set of market dynamics to persuade me otherwise - for example such a vast difference in cost that I cannot even conceive of commanding a premium price for my product/service due to the superior customer service I offer in the home country.
So if the company itself is attacking new markets in different countries I would believe that it should have its service hubs within that market in spite of the fact that by definition they would have to hire and train a completely new bunch of people. The problem of newness is relatively easier to fix by having a core group of existing trained people lead the training effort in the new country, then the problem of trying to get existing employees from a different nation understand the nuances of culture in a new country.
My personal, and unapologetic, opinion is that a company should hold its customer service people and mechanisms as close as possible within itself and as close as possible to the market it is servicing where the market is defined as within a national boundary. There are countries where even simply being within the national boundary still poses severe cultural and language challenges due to the sheer diversity of the country itself.
Can technology play a factor in making this transition easier?
Nair: Of course it can. The question really is how to make it do that. The truth is that the increasing use of technology has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in customer satisfaction whether or not the service locations are in country or outside. In fact arguably quite the reverse if the proliferation of reports about increasing levels of customer angst with service are to be believed.
To my mind this question, that of the use of technology to simply deliver the desired level and quality or service, deserves consideration as a stand-alone. Let me reverse the question: If the use of technology has not delivered quite acceptable results with in house in country customer service, why should we believe that it can do so when service personnel and locations are thousands of miles away? I recognize I sound cynical, but the point is the proper use of technology for delivering the promised brand experience is a conundrum we need to crack rather urgently. And when we do that it will certainly take away some of the uncertainties and challenges of moving service jobs and locations to far away locations.
Technology is culture neutral (to an extent - there are cultures and customers in parts of the world who are less ready to adopt technology to serve their purposes) and to the extent routine matters can be handled using technology. Apart from which, the use of capabilities like CTI (News - Alert) can definitely furnish real-time information to narrow the gap of understanding an agent in a foreign land may have of the customers of an organization.
At Servion we believe that each brand has to deliver the promised experience at the service point. We call this Customer Experience by Design. We also believe organizations need to follow a step-by-step process to translate a brand strategy to a service strategy and then break that service strategy into component design elements of people, process and technology. Following this step-by-step process necessarily means the question of where to locate customer service occurs at a later stage by which time the service strategy as mandated by the brand strategy very probably has already answered that question.
How do you get past what some consider the stigma of foreign call centers, particularly those in India?
Nair: I would want to first understand where that stigma exists. Is it in the mind of my customer? Because if it is, the only way to get past it is to deliver the promised and expected experience time after time till my customer erases that stigma through personal experience.
That is a tough ask and a long-term process. I cannot see any quick fixes as being available.
If the stigma is within the minds of the management or senior employees in the company and not in the minds of my customers, it is relatively easier to fix. A process of education and exposure to the quality of services being offered and consumed should fix that.
What are the cultural differences that must be accounted for to be successful?
Nair: Various layers of cultural difference.
For example, in a highly male-dominated society, how would a male call center agent deal with a troublesome woman caller? Or vice versa? [There are] cultural differences as reflected not merely in the ability to speak a language but being comfortable in the nuances of its usage. [There also are] cultural differences with regard to the use of technology and the readiness to adopt technology, and so on.
Even if call centers save money, are the savings worth it if customers are being annoyed?
Actually the question begs another question. Even if customers are not being annoyed, who is going to be brave enough to quantify the size of the opportunity missed to have a conversation with the customer? Every time a customer calls in I would want the organization to see it as an opportunity to strengthen that oh-so-elusive emotional connect with the customer. Not to sell him or her stuff please. Just to please him or her extraordinarily. Who is even factoring that opportunity loss into these calculations?
Edited by Stefania Viscusi