Wednesday, October 12, 2005

PC's Tits Up, Software's Chuddies Are In A Twist.........


.........and what's the weather like in Delhi? It's pissing down in Middle England.

For a few hours yesterday I lost my internet connection. It's extraordinary what panic and rage this induces, even in those of us who have lived most of our lives in an internet-free world.
AOL, like so many other companies, have now moved their call centre to India. The first person I spoke to talked me through all the usual software checks and tweaks which took about twenty minutes before saying she'd just noticed that BT were working on my line and things would be back to normal in two hours.
When I phoned again two hours later I was again told it was BT's fault but this time I was told the connection would be down for two days. In the circumstances, it was not a good idea to end the call with "thank you for calling AOL, Willie. You've been talking to Sanjeev. Have a great day!'

Not having a trusting nature, I then rang BT and eventually succeeded in talking to a human being. He may also have been in Delhi, but I can't be sure.
Being capable of great stupidity, I thought BT would have a daily list of exchanges where engineering work was taking place. They didn't, of course. But I was told that if work were being done it was most unlikely that my telephone would work. However, I could not persuade BT to agree with me that AOL were 'lying bastards'.
Anyway, the connection suddenly resumed and I think the fault was in AOL's own network.

My first conversation with India took a long time, at my expense, because I had difficulty understanding the lady's accent. This is becoming a common problem. My elderly father who is very deaf can seldom understand anyone at Indian-based call centres and has to ring off.
Admittedly, I sometimes had difficulty with very strong Irish accents when AOL were based in Ireland. But it's much worse when you're talking to someone whose first language is not English. I found myself yesterday constantly re-phrasing things to get rid of slang expressions. If I said my PC was 'just revving up' would they know what I meant?

I once heard a customer in PC World give a lengthy, technical account of what was wrong with his computer. The engineer relayed this to his colleague as "It went phut! It's gone tits up."
Do the people in Delhi have a phrase book that explains that 'tits up' is not an inapppropriate reference to the Kama Sutra but an indication of total system failure?

Should people with very strong accents of any kind be employed in call centres, unless they're only servicing the locality in which they live?
Let's take an extreme example, a reductio ad absurdam. Would somebody with a serious stammer be employed in a call centre on the grounds of equality of opportunity?
What is the correct balance between avoiding discriminatory employment practices and giving good customer service and applying good old common sense?
I don't know the answer. I just ask the question.
Maybe I'll ask Sanjeev next time my software's got its chuddies in a twist and I'm experiencing the inter-continental joys of the global economy.

8 Comments:

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous robin said...

I think 'the market' might well take care of this. I have had two calls from (I assume) India, hissy lines and very thick accents reading a script at piece work speed.

They were trying to sell me mobile phones. The first became a waveform, a sort of weeewoooweewoo, completely incomprehensible. I said "No' in the first available gap. The second said he was ringing from Redwood College. I was expecting to be asked for money after that so I got picky and asked him where exactly the college was. After a few extra attempts I finally understood the words 'Network Orange'. I said 'No' in the next available gap.

Cold calling is hard enough anyway. I anticipate that low sales will be met with new tactics.

 
At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Alan said...

I was watching a travel programme about Mumbai the other day and the presenter was showing locals attending a college to learn to speak with American accents so that they could work in call centres. Bizarre.

 
At 1:57 PM, Anonymous asta said...

Not so bizare when you consider that a call center employee in Mumbai can earn about $5000 a year in a country where the average annual income is about $500.
I remember 60 Minutes doing a fascinating piece a couple of years ago on students learning American accents just so they could snag one of those coveted jobs.

Because of my location, in Quebec, I get domestic call centers where neither of us is ever sufficiently proficient in the other's language to make any call less than an epic struggle.

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger cello said...

It's not discriminatory to have 'essential' aspects in a job spec, Willie. They just have to be legitimate needs for the job. Being able to understand and be understood in the main language of the market you're providing a call-centre service to would certainly count. People get very anxious about anti-discrimination legislation but it's mostly fairly sensible. Employers get into trouble when they use race, sex, age etc etc as lazy descriptors, eg For 'he's too old' read 'he's inflexible and lacking in drive, for 'she's a new mum' read 'she can't concentrate and is making a lot of mistakes'. As long as you concentrate on the specific behaviours of the individual and refrain from speculatng on the causes, you're doing nothing wrong and not creating a culture of general discrimination towards one group. Sorry to be so tedious.

I think all call centres are evil and only there to torture customers. There I go, making sweeping - probably illegal- generalisations, when in fact the First Direct call centre is staffed by angels.

 
At 3:32 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

robin: I don't have much confidence in the market, not where helplines rather than cold calling are involved.
It's possible that a company could make domestic call centres a selling point but then they would incur higher costs than their competitors. If those costs are passed on to customers then higher prices might counteract any benefits from having domestic call centres.

(I once tried to explain the Telephone Preference Service, to which I subscribe, to an overseas sales caller but without much success.)

alan: I believe that people servicing the UK market are shown episodes of Eastenders.
This won't help them much if someone rings from Coronation Street and says the wife is mithering them about a leak in the ginnel.

asta: all those graduates working in Indian call centres for UK and American companies could surely be doing something more useful to their own societies. So there's a double dis-benefit to this practice.

cello: I wasn't attacking anti-discrimination legislation although I'm not sure it often achieves its goals. You can still employ who you want so long as you can prove that you didn't discriminate illegally against anyone else. In other words, it's mostly cosmetic.
I worked for an organisation where people with disabilities were automatically shortlisted if they met the 'essential' requirements. But people without disabilities would usually have to exceed the minimum criteria to be shortlisted. This didn't increase the number of disabled employees. It just meant that lots of people with disabilities got interviewed. I found this cruel and patronising and a waste of everyone's time.

There are still many British guest houses who won't give rooms to black people. They just say they are fully-booked. (I have direct knowledge of this practice). It's almost impossible to prove discrimination because if you send a white person there five minutes later and they get a room, they say they had a cancellation.
That's not to say we shouldn't have legislation or that not having 'No Blacks' signs on windows isn't an improvement. But legislation in these areas is not as effective as some people think.
Sorry for that long digression.

Are you one of the women in those First Direct ads who lavish praise on the call centre staff? They seem to have made this a key selling point. Do they achieve good service without too much bullshit? With AOL you get a long preamble which includes asking permission to call you by your first name. I just want the bloody problem solved not a discussion about forms of address. And why this first names nonsense? My doctor would still call me 'Mr Lupin' even if he had his gloved finger up my arse.
Sorry, starting to rant. I'll save it for the blog.

 
At 4:09 PM, Blogger portuguesa nova said...

I was wondering if Indian call centre staff learn American accents for the US and British for your side of the pond.

My former workplace transferred our switchboard services to India about a year ago. So ridiculous. All transferred calls have to go through the switchboard.

So when Joe Shmoe called me from Los Angeles, even though he meant to call the lady sitting right next to me, I'd have to transfer Los Angeles to India then India transferred him to the lady next to me.

While I think it is true that those call center jobs are better paid than lots of jobs in India, as I understand most of the people who work there are frighteningly overqualified, with advanced degrees and work like 90 gazillion hours a week and commute 90 gazillion hours into work.

India is a very curious place. They are very, very different and I think the language thing hides that a little.

Culturally speaking, based on my experiences with the Indian higherups in my former job, I think it would be better to exploit the cheap labor of some other country, perhaps somewhere in Eastern Europe where doctors are picking up trash and digging ditches.

 
At 5:33 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

supernova: yes, I'm sure they're trained in the culture of the country they are servicing. But how much can you learn in a short training course? And how typical is a soap opera of life in that country, because those are included in the training?

Love the idiocy of a call being routed round the world to go to the person sitting next to you. And, indeed, bouncing off satellites in outer space. Are we all mad?

 
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