Calling New Delhi: Customer Service Reps and the Corporate Benefits of Cultural Complexity
Most people know that a majority of corporations outsource their call centers to India. They don't necessarily learn this fact in business school. They learn it by simply dialing the customer service line and hearing a voice on the other end speak with an accent that hails from the outskirts of New Delhi.
What most customers living in the first world fail to see is how these Indian call centers really work. Last night, CNBC offered a glimpse of this world when the cable channel premiered its documentary, Customer (Dis)Service.
During training, Indian customer service reps are taught to speak "American" English by letting go of the "Indianisms" that, they feel, taint their British English. They're taught how to pronunciate, how to properly phrase questions, and how to respond concisely while maintaining control over the call.
They're encouraged to "Americanize" themselves over the phone by changing their names. Reps with Indian names, like Jayashekhar or Maanika, cloak their ethnicity by identifying themselves as "Michael" or "Nancy" to callers, a tactic that a training rep said makes it easier for the customer on the other end to address the rep. It also gives the caller the impression that they're speaking with an American rep who works in the United States.
The deception doesn't end there.
If a customer asks the rep where he or she is from—a question that typically gets asked when an angry customer isn't getting what they want during the call and suspects an Indian accent—the rep will tell them they're in a U.S. city, like Cleveland, and pull up the Google weather screen to let the caller know what the weather's like in Cleveland at the moment if the caller continues the line of regional inquiry. One female rep told the documentary filmmakers that she was answering the phone as "Nancy" that day before disclosing this Google weather trick that "Americanizes" her to callers.
It wasn't difficult to feel sorry for these workers, who, according to CNBC, earn about $400 USD per month. Dealing with hundreds of customers who belittle, degrade, and demean you on a daily basis can't be easy.
And it isn't.
During their break, the reps vented over dinner. As they munched on the pizzas that were delivered to the office, the reps commiserated with one another and called the arrogance, dominance, and entitlement displayed by the customers "white" behavior. It was a stereotypical and, seemingly, racist reaction from a group of people who are clearly tired of being similarly labeled and disrespected by angry customers, regardless of whether these customers are white or not. It was a clear example of how intolerence breeds intolerance—even over the phone.
It was troubling to watch these reps "whiten" themselves in training by learning to set aside their heritage, manners of speaking, and identities for the sake of earning what's considered a high monthly wage in a country that's still struggling with extreme poverty. It was also troubling to watch the reps mock and turn against the perceived "whiteness" they're trying to assume for the sake of income.
The most troubling thing though? The fact that this draining, interpersonal experience is purposely mired in complexity by the companies who outsource their call centers to India.
According to an editor at The Consummerist.com who was interviewed in the documentary, misunderstandings with customers who dial these call centers "make people tire out and give up." The more customers hang up on the reps and give up on resolving their problems, the more money companies save and keep on their side, the editor explained.
The idea that corporations are intentionally creating an organizational mess by pitting workers who are fighting their way out of poverty and customers who just want a problem resolved against each other over the phone is a sad commentary on the state of business. Ironically, most of these same companies boast about their proactive efforts at creating a sustainable world.
Call me a crazy idealist, but purposely pitting people against one another for the sake of avoiding a refund or shouldering extra costs doesn't sound very sustainable.
Then again, what do I know?
I'm not a corporate titan.