Companies now advertise UK-only call centre policies
A consumer backlash against foreign call centres has led some companies to return operations to the UK. After all the talk of lower costs, where did it all go wrong?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
"Hello, it's my car." ''Your cat, sir?." "No, my hatchback." "Your bad back, sir?" "No my car, it's a hatchback." "Your cat has a bad back, sir?" "Arghhhhhh!"
Dealing with call centres has always been one of the great irritations of trying to contact your bank, insurer - almost any service provider. But since many have relocated abroad, it ranks right up there with the weather and house prices as one of the most popular collective national moans.
Just 4% of people have had a good experience when dealing with a call centre, according to a recent survey by YouGov. Over half of those asked said their biggest gripe was having to contact call centres outside the UK and more than a third admitted to shouting and swearing at agents because they got so frustrated.
The issue has now become such a national bugbear some companies are using their UK-only call centre policy as a marketing tool. Natwest's latest advertising campaign guarantees that customers speak to people in Barnsley or Cardiff, rather than Bombay or Calcutta.
In recent months a number of big British firms have announced they are bringing call centres back to the UK, including Powergen. Esure announced it was doing the same this week, with boss Peter Wood reportedly suggesting the trend for outsourcing is doomed.
So why are call centres coming home? Short-sighted planning is behind the U-turn, says Claudia Hathway, editor of Call Centre Focus (CCF) magazine.
"Many companies just didn't think the move through," she says. "It was all driven by cost, not the customer. But what's the point of saving money when a poor phone call is the first-hand experience of the quality of service. If it is a bad experience, people are not going to buy."
Some also didn't realise the cost of updating the telephone infrastructure in countries like India and relocating managers from the UK to oversee the operation.
But is there something a bit more unsavoury playing a part in customer dissatisfaction?
IN THE UK
There are 5,700+ call centres
Employing 581,000 people
This is expected to rise to 647,000 in 2007
A call centre manager earns about £26,000
Starting salaries are about £11,000
"Some people definitely had a certain mindset and decided the call was going to be bad before they'd even dialled the number," says Adrian Web from Esure, which says it took the original decision to outsource because it could not recruit enough staff in the UK - not because of money.
"When we listened back to calls people had complained about often they were fine. Some people wanted the member of staff to fail because they were in India. I don't know why that should be, but when customers start voting with their feet you have to respond. You cannot fight against what the customer wants."
People's complaints might have initially been fuelled by a bit of xenophobia, but it is now about the service they are receiving, says Ms Hathway.
"Initially a lot of people did view the overseas call centres as taking British jobs and didn't like it, but the fact they often do not get a good service is the issue now."
Some companies have stuck to a UK-only policy from the start, like over-50s holiday and insurance company Saga. It says it could save 65p on the cost of an average call if it outsourced, but its customers want to speak to someone who can easily understand them.
"The oldest person who has insurance with us is 103, they don't want to struggle to be understood on the telephone," says Saga's Paul Green.
"Taking call centres out of the UK might look like a good option if you are a short-sighted accountant with your nose stuck up against a spreadsheet. We have always taken the broader view - we could save money but at the expense of service."
Dissatisfaction with foreign call centres has now reached a point where the millions that companies spend on their image is money down the drain, say experts. If service is not up to scratch no amount of fancy advertisements will entice the customer back.
Men make up 44% of call centre staff
"A brand's success is about the relationship between the consumer and the company," says branding expert Jonathan Gabay. "Anything that takes it apart, like a third party, makes that relationship less intimate. People ring a call centre and want to talk to someone who they can relate to, who they feel understands their problems."
But having call centres in the UK is no guarantee of customer satisfaction, and it's risky using the fact to differentiate yourself from competitors, like Natwest is doing.
"If people still can't get through it doesn't matter if the person they are hanging on for is in the UK or India," says Mr Gabay. "It's not where you are but what you know that matters."
Perks of job
But it hasn't all been a disaster. While call centres abroad may have made you want to tear your hair out, the situation has driven a long-overdue debate about the industry, says CCA chief executive, Anne Marie Forsyth.
"It has made companies look more closely at what they are doing.
TOP FIVE UK CENTRE HOTSPOTS
South East 1,516
West Midlands 605
North West 599
"There has been criticism that managers didn't understand how call centres work, they thought it was all about answering as many calls as possible. They didn't understand agents were the frontline of contact for their companies and the focus should be on quality."
Not all companies think the move was a mistake, things have just needed fine tuning. Norwich Union recently hit the headlines for reportedly doing a U-turn on foreign call centres, but says it has not shut its operation in India.
"We have just moved certain calls back to the UK, like household claims," says a spokeswoman. "Feedback showed us these calls were better handled by staff in this country as customers making a claim were often anxious."
Its Indian call centres now deal with things such as changing the address on a policy. Customer satisfaction levels are roughly the same for centres in the UK and in other countries, she says.
Foreign staff taught how to chat with Brits
The overseas adventure has also benefited some call centre staff in the UK. As centres were first being shifted abroad, much was made of the "battery farm" atmosphere at some British call centres. Aware that happy workers tend to provide better service, the likes of Kwik Fit Insurance Services sought to improve conditions, and its workers now have a on-site hairdresser, trained masseur, beauty therapist, as well as yoga classes, a spacious garden, coffee shop and a chill-out room. They even have of a "minister of fun".
Has it worked? Yes - the centre ranked number 15 on the Sunday Times' list of the best employers in 2005. Productivity has increased and customer satisfaction has reaching 98%. Everyone's a winner.
Watch out for a report from a call centre in India next month as part of BBC business writer Steve Schifferes' globalisation series.
Here is a selection of your comments.
I have just gone through the yearly rigmarole of renewing my car insurance. My previous provider's call centre operatives were obviously based abroad or had never dealt with someone with a liverpool accent as I had to repeat myself several times.
My new provider is Kwik fit and I spent 10 minutes chatting away to a glaswegian (I think) he was definitely Scottish and about 50% of the call was chatting about everything apart from car insurance. Quick and painless except for handing over my bank details. I am not surprised they have 98% customer satisfaction judging by how I was dealt with.
Michael , Hampshire
This is another prime example of English racism. Most foreigners speak a better standard of English than we do!
Josephine Boyd, Bermondsey, London, UK
I recently posted an envelope, containing my paying-in book and a cheque, through my local bank's letter box. When the account was not credited I rang my bank to find out why. All I wanted was for someone to quickly check that my envelope had not become stuck in the mail box. (It had, but that is a another story). I was connected to a call centre in India but getting them to understand was a problem in itself. All they could do was email the UK and ask a member of staff at my local branch to give me a ring - which was not until the next day. I was not impressed.
Alan Williams, Liverpool United Kingdom
My experience of foreign call centres has been very positive. Admiral insurance, who've had a base in india for years, are consistently rapid to answer your call and provide excellent service. Alliance & Leicester, who pride themselves on answering their phones from Liverpool or Lytham or wherever, always take 5 minutes to answer and, when they do pick up the phone, put you straight on hold then give you some horrific attitudinal back-chat. Give me a well-educated, articulate, intellegent person in Mumbai over an intellectually sub-normal whining dullard in the uk any day, please. People who have a problem with different accents are narrow minded xenophobes.
Craig Kellock, Falkirk, UK
Shame - we 've had a good laugh with some of our experiences on the phone to overseas call centres
Maggie, South London
I have given up calling any call centre. I now write an old fashioned letter I find the whole process much less stresful. No automated button pushing, no need to proove who I am prior to even begining to explain the reason for my call and no need to listen to endless hold music. It may take a couple of days but most things can probably wait that long.
Richard , Redditch
Call centres abroad is an absolute disaster. I have had nothing but bad experiences and now vow to only use companies with UK call centres. Make your opinion count - if you don't like your bank call centre abroad, change banks.
I really couldn't care if the operator is British, Asian, or even Martian. I just want 2 things -
1: Clarity of voice / accent, 2: Britsh customers (me and you) funding jobs in Britain. And part 2 is important because we can only spend our money with these companies if they give us the opportunity to earn it!! Imagine if every job was outsourced! Their profit margin would be great, but there would be no customers to buy their products.
Paul D, Norwich
I needed to instruct my bank on where to send my new cheque card. I telephoned and got through to an operator in India. She then tried to get through to my bank in Bristol but couldn't! After being kept on hold whilst she kept trying to get through, I gave up with the phone and sent a fax! Yet strangely enough, my account manager can always get hold of me on the phone so why is it not a two-way thing?
The overseas call centre of my bank fails because the staff (who are pleasant and helpful) appear not to have the information I as a customer need. Since branch staff aren't able to deal anymore (it would seem) with routine enquiries, most queries now are dealt with by call centre. If they can't help, what do you do? It's a huge failing on the part of the bank. OK they might be driven by profit as any good business should be but it should never be done at the expense of the customer. My bank has become so greedy and blinkered that it cannot see the false economy it is creating. Whoever trained or fail to train their overseas workers should be made to listen to the dribble of "music" the rest of us have to hear while we die a slow death on hold.
Joss Bruce, London
The thing I hate most about call centres is not where they are based but when the person on the other end of the phone can't help you. At which point the conversation starts to go round in circles. They obviously have some kind of script that they go through, and if at any point the conversation deviates from that script they go back to the beginning, as if by starting again something will change, really really frustrating. This ultimately comes down the centre staff not being trained enough in the product or service to be able to understand the problem or query. The company obviously thinks that they can covered all possible scenarios with one script.
I feel that the worst part of dealing with call-centres is not the fact that the person on the other end is in Mumbai, London, Edinburgh or Swansea but that they are hamstrung by their role. Bad experiences I have had with call-centres have stemmed not from the person's accent or nationality but the fact that they just did not have the authority to step out of a pre-determined script to address my particular problem.
Large companies employ under-trained staff to simply try to plaster over issues rather than trained & experienced problem solvers. Most of the companies I now deal with on a regular basis are those that employ some variety of account manager who treat me as a person rather than a number on a quota.
Neil Marklew, London
Oh, so these companies want to move their operators back to the UK because its what their customers want, not because they are losing money? What a pity the very same uber-greedy, 'we know best' suits didn't listen to their customers in the first place. I doubt the combined efforts of the entire labour party spin machine could have dreamed up such incredulous porky pies. I doubt anyone will be any similarly contrite handing back of 'performance' bonuses though - shareholders duly take note...!
Jim D, Argyll & Bute
I am fed up with people always blaming the call centre staff for the problems they face - why don't they ever blame the poor training, rigid scripts or big brother control the company places on the staff, notwithstanding the decision - inavriably financial- that was made to transfer overseas in the first place? I have never worked in a CC, but I understand they are only trying to do their job with the resources and training they have been given. As for accents, I can find it equally hard to understand strong (e.g.) Scots accents as I do Indian. Also consider that a CC job can be considered a proper career in India, but is treated almost "lowest of the low" here, often with staff attitudes to match. I don't care where the person is as long as they can answer my question and be as polite and friendly back to me as I am to them. But I DO object to being treated as though I am scum and they have only picked up my call as a favour to me, as I have found many times with UK st!
Liz, Berkshire, UK
My Brother died in December 2006. On phoning a call centre to advise them of his passing I was told we cant take your word for that! He will have to call himself! I was very angry and said to the girl "ARE YOU DEAF - I JUST TOLD YOU HE DIED" She replied "Sorry I was not listening"
It's bad enough that you have to wait for 10 min's + to talk to these people.