I just finished a five month contract assignment working the help desk for an American financial company that runs and EDI website to facilitate business to business document and data exchanges. My task was two-fold: help train the new India Help Desk agents to handle the company's own in-house support calls, while we handled external customer calls in the U.S., then to assist in transitioning even the outside customers to India.
I had previously worked for an American company that provides call center services for a number of computer makers, so I was no stranger to scripts and tools, and I can tell you that these are not
Here's what I think is
India does indeed have a thriving IT economy and a very well educated and technically savvy workforce. This led to a large number of programming, engineering and assembly positions being moved there in recent years.
Moving support call centers seemed like a good idea to a lot of companies that were already having code written in India. This notion was based on a misconception: that a telephone support job is primarily a technical
A help desk agent is primarily a customer service
person. 90% of calls are not
techinical in nature. A good 80% of them are customer error issues or problems with things that the call center doesn't support. (PC makers getting calls that turn out to be problems with an internet service provider and vice versa.) The agent doesn't need vast techincal knowledge to deal with such problems. He/she needs the ability to establish a rapport with the customer, and the ability to explain what the customer is doing wrong (or they've called the wrong company to deal with their problem) without coming across as condescending or snotty. A basic technical understanding of PCs is useful, but less critical than a knowledge of customers and how they use computers.
Since even the best tech is not going to know every detail of every model his company makes, and will not have encountered every possible problem or memorized every solution, even a technical expert is going to need on-line references and the like. (The company I worked for had photographs and diagrams of every motherboard and expansion card, as well as animated instructions for things like removing case covers and installing drives - invaluable since they used dozens of different cases over the years and I had personally only worked on a handfull of them.) A technician can look things up and get an answer for the customer. But an agent trained in providing customer service will know how to stall while looking things up so as not to annoy the customer or make him feel that his time is being wasted.
part of the customer service job is very hard to do across cutural barriers. I'm a very good telephone suppport agent in the U.S. I doubt I'd be nearly as good trying to do the same job in France (assuming I spoke French), even though France is a western European country with many cultural and historical commonalities with the United States. I'd do even worse providing support for users in, say, Istanbul - and I'd be a disaster if I were trying to do the job for end-users in Bangalore.
When our U.S. call center and India's were overlapping the most common first words of all of my calls - from both internal and external customers - was, "Oh, thank God. An American." That's not prejudice, that's heartfelt relief because when you are having a problem with a web site or a product simply communicating
should not be more of a problem than your actual problem, and too often in these call centers it is. I dealt with our India offices all the time and 9 times out of 10 the accents were a major
problem. Even when trying to spell things phonetically
I'd often have problems. We used to laugh imagining what some of the conversations between certain of our customers, like those in Maine, say, or in Cajun country, and the India Help Desks must have been like.
For our web support most of our "tech support" calls really amounted to user training issues. Talking users through accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish with our software required not technical knowledge but familiarity with the web site and an understanding of the kind of businesses that used it. I had worked for several financial companies before taking this contract - so I knew
the industry terminology, I knew how things had to happen (and could therefore figure out where people had to go in the software even if the issue involved a module I hadn't been trained in) and I even knew the regulatory issues behind the way some of the features on the site worked. None of the help desk agents in India knew any of this because they weren't drawn from the financial industry there, and even if they had been things don't work the same way as they do here.
So, again, the customers I used to deal with are now getting an inferior level of service with more time per call, and they are probably getting pretty fed up. I don't know if enough of them will quit using the service and the web site to force that company to return its operations to the U.S., but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they did. (I do know that if they call me
and want me to go back that my price has gone up.
BTW, if you read the article quoted about closely, you'll see that only Dell's corporate
tech support calls are being moved back to the U.S. Home users will still get India. Support for home users is seen as a cost, whereas corporate support is one of the things the company is selling. When they get complaints from corporate IT managers and purchasing agents who threaten to start buying elsewhere if they get lousy service, Dell reacts. With individual consumers there is much less incentive to do so. Until and unless they start seeing sales drop and market share going to the competition, they probably will leave the home support right where it is. (The American out-sourcing firm I worked for didn't have a Dell account, but they did have two of Dell's major competitors. One of them had closed down a company owned and operated call center overseas and added agents to our account group because we were more efficient, handled more calls for less money and even generated so much in the way of peripheral and software sales that they made a profit on the deal. One comment I heard more than once while there was that customers had switched to the computer brand that I represented from Dell because they were so unhappy with their technical support.)