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December 11, 2008

How much extra would you pay for a customer service agent who speaks 'American?'


Long story short: computer maker Dell thinks you'd be willing to pony up $12.95 a month/$99 a year extra when you buy a new computer to be guaranteed phone support by someone located in the U.S.


Here's Peter Whoriskey's front page article from today's Washington Post Business section with the details.

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

    Some Firms See Value in Familiar Voices

    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.


I have a friend whose fuse is so short that if he gets someone with an accent — even after being on hold for a long time — he immediately hangs up and calls back, hoping for a native English speaker.

I was a bit confused by an apparent contradiction in Whoriskey's article above, to wit: in the second sentence he writes, "... Dell will guarantee... that the person who picks up the phone on a support call will be... 'based in North America'" — yet the very next sentence reads, "... with agents located in the United States."

Excuse me, but aren't Canada — and Mexico — part of North America?

Last time I looked at a map they were.

Maybe I'll email Whoriskey for a clarification.

It's not like I have anything else to do.


This just in (3:53 p.m. today) via email from Peter Whoriskey: "The guarantee says North America. Dell told me they don't have call centers for the service in Canada and Mexico."


My confusion is resolved.

At least, about this.

Much else remains baffling but that's a subject for another post.

December 11, 2008 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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I am a Virgin Mobile customer that has had numerous trouble with the Manila and other over seas call centers regarding my cell service. I have been disconnected, hung up on, ect. You should not have to pay anymore money for a service that should be provided to you as it was presented.

The world has become a big machine that is out of control.

What if US had call centers here for other countries? It would never work.
What makes anyone thing think it would any other way.
It is just another example of the US trying to save a buck or 2-and make money to get you an english speaking representative, unbelievable.
The generations to come will suffer for mistakes we are making now.
I guess maybe I could charge Virgin Mobile for my time, get an address send a bill and you know I would bet it would get paid. You think? Sheila

Posted by: Sheila | Dec 12, 2008 12:43:59 PM

I'm not sure I want anyone with an American accent, especially if that includes South Side Bostonian which I just cannot understand, y'all.

I speak five languages, Southie isn't one of them.

Although I'm also kind of torn, as I live in Call Center USA and have friends who have lost jobs to outsourcing, I wonder if some people will pay the premium to keep my friends employed. It's like welfare only in a cubicle!

Posted by: Mary Sue | Dec 12, 2008 11:26:07 AM

I´m not sure I know what ´American´ is.

If I think about all of the television from the U.S. that gets exported to the world, my rough guess is that ´American´ is a form of english where everything is ´LIKE´ a simile and cursing is rampant.

eg. "I LIKE picked up the phone and LIKE just told that c--k s--ker what to do with his hard drive".

Oh yes please....LIKE sign me up already and stop treating like a m---er f---ing metaphor.

Posted by: wombat | Dec 12, 2008 8:17:21 AM

I've said this for a while: I'd pay a bit more in order to have tiered call center support. That is, if I can prove that I know that there's no "any" key, and that I've already run through the obvious diagnostics before ever placing a customer service call, I should be assigned a permanent Customer Number that I can key in and automatically get to Tier Three (or whatever) level service.

I can sometimes live with the accent, depending on how strong it is. What bugs holy crud out of me is being forced to run on the hamster wheel they have in order to get escalated.

Posted by: Randee | Dec 12, 2008 12:35:24 AM

It's an interesting question--and one with companies are asking. Some companies aren't charging their customers more, but are moving their call centers back to the United States after realizing that having them overseas was costing them money.

Posted by: Maestro | Dec 11, 2008 10:54:26 PM

In general, if I can understand the person at the other end and believe he/she can at least somewhat understand me, I'll try to work through. I know my own years of school curses inf French (five years) and German (six years) do not let me read a newspaper in those languages, never mind a film and certainly not a conversation, and I appreciate their effort enough to try to help (which has been known to cause trouble: years back on a BBS a Japanese teen asked how to pronounce "Neanderthal" and several posters excoriated me for trying to give her help - why, none said, perhaps because I gave both English [US] and German [well, Bavarian, as my teachers were of that area] a stab).

But regardless of whereabouts, if the first response is "unplug/reboot" and after explaining I have already done so the second response is "unplug/reboot" I will ask for another rep or supervisor.

Posted by: teqjack | Dec 11, 2008 5:47:15 PM

Some of the best service I've had came from overseas...it isn't the language or culture, it is these damn call centers where they are paid to get people off the phone as fast as possible and anyone reading off-script is considered to have gone rogue.

Most of these people have advanced IT degrees and far smarter than the average american call center worker, but they have to play by the rules to keep their jobs...

As a side note, I had a good friend from Indian travel back overseas and went to a training center to learn to speak American...you'd think should could get it here for free, but it was easier to take classes back that way on how to lose her accent. Personally, I thought she had a very cute accent...

Posted by: clifyt | Dec 11, 2008 3:50:58 PM

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