Off-shoring is often touted as an effective way to reduce costs and outsource customer service functions. Common destinations for off-shoring are India, the Philippines, Malaysia and China where labour is cheap, and staff with English language skills are readily available. But many Australian companies are finding that simply moving call centre operations offshore is not as simple or cost effective as it initially may appear. Common complaints from Australian customers are the apparent lack of understanding of many call centre operators, their inability to take initiative and responsibility for issue resolution, and a lack of credibility. Australian managers can also be frustrated with the lack of feedback from local providers. As a result, managing the performance of off-shoring providers and ensuring internal and external clients are getting the service they seek often require far more cost and effort than initially anticipated. At Beasley Intercultural, we have been working with many of our clients to assist them to navigate these issues and get the results they require in this complex cross-cultural context.

It is important to understand the broader context of off-shoring operations. In India, for example, the Business Process Outsourcing Industry (BPO) is expected to grow from $US 5.2 billion per year in 2005 to $US 25 billion per year in 2010 (McKinsey NASSCOM report as cited in the Economist, 3 June 2006). In India, there is also an average churn of staff in the industry of 30% per annum and very few staff have extensive experience, particularly at the management level.

Cross cultural factors are also significant. Despite relatively good English comprehension and basic training in how to communicate with Westerners, a frequent challenge is also ensuring local providers have the ability to take the initiative to ask probing questions, think laterally and take responsibility for problem resolution rather than simply follow a script. When English is learned as a foreign language, as it is in China, it isn’t just pronunciation that provides a challenge. English lessons rarely attain the level of language subtlety required for an IT call centre provider to phone and wake an executive from their slumber on the other side of the Atlantic, and request authority for a system restart. In India and the Philippines, where English is an official language, the way English is used can be as challenging to understand as accents.

Often the Asian perception of quality customer service is answering customers’ questions, being polite and friendly, doing what is asked for, and doing it quickly. Such concepts make sense in cultures where harmonious relationships are important, and education based on rote learning results in a preference for accurate task completion. Western concepts such as initiative taking, proactivity and independent problem solving are new ideas to many customer service agents who live and work in hierarchical cultures where the need to save face creates a reluctance to escalate problems, and a structure where only managers may be empowered to resolve problems of even medium complexity.

Despite initial perceptions that this may be the case, resolution of such issues to ensure client satisfaction is rarely as simple as ‘accent correction’. To ensure success of off-shoring, it is important to:

1. Plan ahead and structure operations appropriately

Particularly when working in a cross-cultural context, it is vital that local preferences for leadership and management are understood when structuring operations. In India for example, a clear hierarchy is adhered to in organisations. Establishing ‘matrix management’ structures of people reporting to both Australian and Indian managers can be particularly problematic and result in a lack of responsibility for outcomes.

2. Prepare and train staff

Call centre staff need to be prepared for the cultural and organisational context in which they will be operating. When working with Chinese IT call centre staff in Beijing for example, Beasley Intercultural custom-designed and delivered a ‘Cross-Cultural Customer Service’ program which focused on developing the specific skills involved in taking initiative, actively questioning the customer and collaborating for an optimal result. Our most successful clients invest in rotations of Australian management and training staff who spend time on-location with off-shoring providers. Our “Cross Cultural Train the Trainer” program has also been used by clients to ensure technical trainers can maximise learning outcomes in a different cultural context.

3. Invest realistically

It is important to factor in significant travel from Australia to ensure development of personal relationships with management of off-shoring operations and close monitoring of performance. In the most common off-shoring locations, providers are far more likely to discuss challenges and take a collaborative approach with clients with whom they have good relationships. It is not enough to expect to maintain the off-shoring provider relationship through email, phone, tele and video-conferencing. On the ground time is vital. Investment in training in the offshoring location is also vital. In an initial pilot program delivered in China for a Beasley Intercultural client it was observed that call resolution rates and customer satisfaction in Australia increased markedly within the first three months after the training program being delivered.

With the appropriate structure, staff support, training and investment, greater client satisfaction results and returns on investment are maximised.