Personally speaking, I certainly don't mind dealing with a call center agent who speaks with an accent, as long as they can solve my problem or get me what I want. It's when the rep can't get the information they need, or can't make an exception to the rule even when they know it's justified – these are the things that get my goat, big time.
I have the same problem with interactive voice response (IVR) units. I can't count the number of times I've abandoned a call after being trapped in a maze of unhelpful options with no clear way to talk to a human being.
There are some call center outsourcers who really to "get it" however. For instance, I met the CEO of Contax, a Brazilian-based call center outsourcer with 64,000 employees, in Sao Paulo when I was there recently for an event.
He told me that Contax contracts with most of its clients to handle their call center calls by charging a flat fee per customer served. Rather than charge for the call, in other words, he simply imposes a flat contract charge to handle all customers. So, obviously, they calculate about how many calls there are per customer per year, and they try to cost things out that way, but his incentive is to reduce the number of calls received, by handling them all very well the first time. Most call center outsourcing companies charge on a cost-plus basis, charging strictly by how many calls are actually handled – which implicitly assumes that handling customer service calls is a cost, rather than an opportunity (and this matches very well with the way many companies think of their call centers). Under this old model, the more calls you have to handle, the more you get to charge your client.
But Contax is unique (this CEO said he didn't know of anyone else doing this – and I don't either) in that they only charges per customer, and so it's Contax's responsibility to reduce the number of calls received. But how do they do that?
Well, first off, by handling all complaints or problems one time and one time only. It pays dividends for them to be very efficient with how they deal with service issues, being careful not to pass calls around to people who can't solve the problem, or get people off the phone just to improve talk time or average handle time (AHT) – because they don't want a caller to call back again. So, the Contax model aligns the outsourcer's own economic interests with the best interests of the client, if the client is intelligent enough to figure that out, and not dwell simply on the cost of handling calls.
But, secondly, if the client has a service problem or a product quality problem of any kind that is causing a lot of calls, then Contax gets on the phone to the client and screams bloody murder at them to clean their act up, which is exactly what a call center ought to do with its sponsoring organization, whether it is outsourced or not.
So no, I don't believe an accent automatically arouses mistrust, but if it is combined with incompetence, lack of information, or simply poor management, it certainly could. But in that case, mistrust would increase even if the call center agent spoke the Queen's English, perfectly.
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This was first published in June 2008