Does offshore mean bad service?

Devangshu Dutta

December 13, 2008

News items seem to be ringing the death-toll for offshoring (Here’s one from the Washington Post:

Job transitions across borders are an emotive issue at any time, certainly even more so during times of economic upheaval such as now.

But should the debate be about “offshore vs onshore” or about management competence?

A management team whose effort isn’t structured well enough to deliver on their customer’s expectation of a good product (service included) could also find many things on which to pin the blame for poor service, including the geographical location of the support engineers, their native language or what they had for breakfast.

(Or, maybe we should reword the old saying: success has many fathers, but failure is the neighbour’s baby.)

My experiences of phone support around the world range from the superlative to the abysmal, sometimes within the same day in the same country. Painting in broad brush strokes and generalizations (“onshore is high quality and prompt, offshore is low quality and frustrating”) totally miss the point.

The best illustration is when you walk into two brick-and-mortar retail stores on the same high street, and receive dramatically different levels of service. In any country.

To my mind, it is senior management that drives service – vision, culture and the processes. Senior management is responsible for creating the environment, and for creating the hiring and training standards. If you are encultured for fantastic service, your location or origin on the globe is immaterial.

Remote servicing is challenging even without differences in time zones, languages, cultures. The lack of technical or any other sort of individual competence shouldn’t be added to the mix. And that goes for both (onshore) management and (offshore) support staff.

Lastly – followers of BBC sitcoms may be the only ones with whom this might ring a bell – Fawlty Towers should be on the must-watch list for anyone who has anything to do with customer service. Especially if they are part of the management.

The Perils of National Customer Care

Devangshu Dutta

March 26, 2008

As brands and retailers expand their operations nationally, they begin to look at consolidating their back-room operations. Typically finance is already centralised, but other operations such as store opening project management, logistics etc. are also centralised for smoother and more efficient operation.

And then comes a big day when someone senior decides that the company should have a single toll-free or local dial number that customers from around the country can call.

Of course, India is already acknowledged as the call-centre of the world, so this should be easy. Right?


Call centres that are operating internationally from India have become famous (notorious?) for acclimatization, enculturation, liguistic training etc. of their staff. After all, they have figured, a customer in Texas is pobably much more comfortable speaking to a Sam than a Samir or to a Jack rather than a Jaikishan. And, beyond the name, they are also provided detailed background on the environment in which their customers live, so that they can have a “conversation” rather than sound as if they are script-driven phone-jockeys.

Domestic contact centre staff (and their domestic customers) are not so lucky.  The hardware may be in place very quickly and efficiently, but the softer aspects have huge gaps. Either this is because the costs are too high (compared to the revenue available domestically), or it may be because this has not even occured to the company as being as issue they should think through.

Languages and accents apart, there is a world of a difference even in terms of the way people deal with each other across India. A customer care person sitting in Chennai may have as little in common with a Punjabi customer from Delhi or a Bengali customer from Kolkata, as they might have with a Spanish-speaking customer based in Mexico.

To companies who are looking at providing single-point phone contact for consumers across the country, I would suggest looking at India just as one would look at the EU.

(For instance, a German company wanting to provide EU-wide single-number dialling would need to ensure that the calls originating from France land at the desk of a person who can speak French and is comfortable with the context of the French customer, and similarly for Poland etc. India is actually no different in its diversity.)

Acknowledging the differences and gaps would be the best first step in building true bridges with customers across the country, and providing better service.