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[19 comments]

Should big brands move call centers back to the U.S.?

August 11, 2014

We've heard anecdotal evidence for years that U.S. consumers prefer to talk to customer service representatives who speak their language without a heavy accent and have the best understanding of the customer's service issues. Yet, in pursuit of higher customer satisfaction, major brands have had to weigh the cost of having call centers in the U.S. with the cost savings that can be achieved by having those centers halfway across the world.

Now, according to a story in the Detroit Free Press, companies are beginning to bring those jobs and call centers back to the U.S. The trend appears to be driven in part by rising overseas labor costs, customers demanding improved service, and the fact that consumers are prone to vent on social media when they have a bad experience.

According to the Free Press story, an organization called Jobs4America says that 180,000 call center jobs were created in the U.S. in 2012 and 2013. The National Association of Call Centers says there are now 66,000 call centers in the U.S., and the number is growing.

Companies with higher-ticket sales may be more likely to base their call centers to the U.S. because of the higher significance of each call. General Motors is among the large companies moving call centers here, based in part on an effort to resolve issues on the first call rather than just documenting them and escalating them to a higher level. Whirlpool services all U.S. customers via domestic call centers, employing 1,500 domestic call center reps and support staff. Online daily deal retailer Zulily and home improvement chain Lowe's were cited in recent news stories as opening new U.S. call centers, providing a combined total of 1,900 new jobs.

Of course, having a call center based in the U.S. doesn't necessarily solve all ills, as recently proved by the recording of a Comcast customer's travails trying to cancel his service, which has gone viral. An excerpt of the conversation, as per Slate:

Rep: I'm just trying to figure out what it is about Comcast service that you don't want to keep.

Customer: This phone call is actually a really amazing representative example of why I don't want to stay with Comcast.

Rep: OK, but I'm trying to help you.

Customer: The way you can help me is by disconnecting my service.

Rep: But how is that helping you! How is that helping you! Explain to me how that is helping you!

 

Discussion Questions:

Will moving call centers back to the U.S. markedly improve customer service? What is on your wish list for better call center experiences?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Will moving call centers back to the U.S. improve or decrease customer service?

Comments:

When a customer needs help he/she wants the customer service agent to speak clearly, project an intimate knowledge of the product/service involved and have a willingness to sincerely help.

Many overseas call centers haven't been successful in meeting those objectives. An underwriting company should meet those objectives and call center experiences about its product/service will get better. The costs involved in achieving that are the company's responsibility, not the customer's.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Yes! We've all had the experience of calling India and speaking with a call center representative named Bob or Mary who do little but take our time as we struggle to understand what they are saying.

But, bringing call centers back to the U.S. is not the entire solution. Companies must empower their representatives to solve consumer issues, and if they cannot immediately solve the issue, quickly pass the call to someone who can.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Moving centers back to the U.S. will help. People are just not "language gap" patient when they do a call-in relating to an issue.

Next, the call centers must run much tighter hiring programs that bring in people that can be professional, that want to learn and want to be successful.

One of my sons is with a retail industry-related call center and his work involves dealing with the major dispute callers. This is the guy you get when you say to a call center person, "let me talk to your manager."

It is a stressful job and requires people who are willing to really learn fast.

His firm went through background checks and required strong references. Why? They want people that are stable, honest and committed to expanding in this area.

Last—in retail—one of the key selling channels is the call center. It is a prime location for retailers to think service and sell, but sell based on each customers unique issues or desires.

Get the centers back in the U.S., sell more and service better.

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Tom Redd, Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

Ugh. I've had my share of good call center experiences and bad ones. All I can say is, if companies think that moving their call centers back to the U.S. is going to solve their customer service problems, they're sadly mistaken. Heaven forbid we invest in training for hourly workers.

That said, I think my most pleasant customer service experiences, even when I came into the call ready to do battle, have come from reps that empathized. Who sounded human and genuinely upset on my behalf (as opposed to parroting a script that tells them to say "I'm sorry" every time a customer complains). When you feel like the rep is working on your behalf—respecting you, there to help you—then that can take the wind out of a lot of anger and frustration going into the call.

But to me, it's all about training. You could've achieved high customer service levels halfway around the world if you'd trained the people there. And you can achieve high levels of customer service in your own back yard. If you train people there.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Moving call centers to the U.S. can demonstrate to customers that the retailer cares about them. It will immediately create a perception of improved customer service. Of course the final evaluation will be based on what happens when customers call.

While our expectations for service may have continuously been lowered to align with what retailers currently provide, the rewards for exceeding expectations are great. There is a frequently-used phrase in customer satisfaction surveys that offers the respondent the choice of selecting "what you expected" with regard to rating the service received. Typically the survey sponsor avoids trying to find out what the customer actually expected. To me it underscores the retailer's lack of sincere interest in great service. I often receive the mediocre service I expected, but the questionnaire doesn't shed the light needed for improvement.

I'll agree that call centers better service their customers when center operators demonstrate empathy, knowledge and training that teaches them how to find solutions in a timely manner rather than deliver pat answers off a script. And of course I'll be impressed when the stream of automated voice directions that lead nowhere do lead to help and that the help really helps.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

The short answer is a qualified yes. Qualified because, as others have pointed out, the ability to communicate clearly is only part of the issue. The other essential attributes are knowing about the products, what the options are, etc.

One attribute I especially like in a call center representative is when he knows he is in over his head and volunteers to have the caller speak with his supervisor. This is a rare occurrence but I have had it happen. When it has, I never fail to give that individual a favorable rating in the follow up survey.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

Absolutely. If consumers can understand the verbal interaction better, they will feel like they are getting better service. But it definitely does not solve everything. With an outside service, even if it's inside the U.S., you're still not getting the level of service you'd get speaking with an employee of the company; someone with a real vested interest in the brand. Better training will help, along with finding ways to make sure customer service representatives really are representatives of the brand.

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Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints

As an American I think bringing jobs back that were sent away is fabulous. As a consumer, I'd like to believe moving call centers to the U.S. would improve issues. As a user experience aficionado, I think that is merely the first step of many that are needed.

Call center help can be likened to retail help: a brand has to be willing to invest in qualified dedicated people that have a willingness to stay around, and train them well and continually. There needs to be an escalation hierarchy that serves the customer, not the brand, and call centers need to be managed in lockstep with marketing, branding, logistics and every other consumer touch point, as one of many important cogs in the scope of user experience.

Without that sort of commitment, companies can expect continued negative rants on social media.

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

Heaven forbid Tom is right! Sometimes it's just the small talk during the call that puts a customer at ease; a friendly person with relevant conversation (while they wait for their decades-old computer system to bring online the right information). Trained, friendly, empowered—that just doesn't seem like something that is going to happen from a script-reading offshore customer service representative. The cost is not the hourly rate we pay these people, it's the lost opportunity of keeping that customer satisfied and loyal.

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Peter J. Charness, SVP America, Global CMO, TXT Group

There are a lot of good reasons to bring call centers back to the U.S. It's about customer satisfaction, and also employment.

Let me put in a plug for my second home, too. The U.S. Virgin Islands (particularly St. Croix) have very fast internet connections and a population that is willing and able to work. The people are friendly, and generally English is their first language.

Nothing makes me crazier than talking to a person who is simply reading from a script. They don't really understand, and they don't really listen.

That's not to say that re-sourcing in the U.S. is a panacea. As Nikki points out above, training for those people is critical.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Although the language can be an issue sometimes, the larger issue is that call centers train their employees to follow a script, whether it is applicable or not!

I wish I could share the actual number of countless hours wasted on service calls all because the call center rep must start at the beginning of the script and make you jump through hoops before they even acknowledge the problem. Then...they aren't the one who can solve it.

India or the US, the tier 1 person should know the products and services well enough to listen and discern the issue quickly and have the access and authority to get the customer to someone who can help. End of story!

And that's my 2 cents.

Lee Kent, Encourages retailers to meet share and learn, YourRetailAuthority

A simple rule that so many merchants have forgotten: "The customer is ALWAYS right." That's right, the goodwill that comes to those organizations that don't hassle customers can be virtually limitless. There are great examples around the world of this. I actually don't think the challenge is language barriers. The challenge is corporate culture and the training given to the call center operators.

If the merchant just gives the customer what they want, potential abuses by "repeat returns" customers can be tracked and dealt with specifically. However, those are a small minority of the volume going to call centers. And, most customer service policies seem to be written to address that minority, rather than taking care of the legitimate majority.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

As the technology becomes more mature, I believe consumers are much more savvy with handling the simple everyday problems that can occur (like, is it plugged in?). This has raised the level of understanding required of call center personnel, both for understanding the callers issues and knowing how to address them.

I believe the ultimate answer here will be a combination of online and phone support. With multiple ways to access the internet (PC, Smart Phone, Tablet) only if the network itself is down are users left completely in the dark. The natural first step is to Google an error message or symptom and look for an authoritative website that offers a solution. It seems that service providers can make better use of this new paradigm by providing support that begins with response to an online inquiry and targets any follow up phone calls to the individuals who are most knowledgeable. By using pictures or even videos to walk the user through problem resolution the service provider can unload effort while improving the experience.

Of course the counter argument is that as the technology matures, problems are even more difficult to resolve. Service providers need to ask themselves how much it is worth to continue debating with a consumer over the viability of a solution. Maybe simply replacing a defective product quickly will save a lot of time.

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Bill Bittner, Principal, BWH Consulting

If you bring the call center back to the U.S. and require the the representative to read answers off their computer screen, you have accomplished nothing. I have had good and very bad experiences with call centers in the U.S. and out. The good experience revolves around the ability of the rep to handle my problem or transfer it to someone who can solve the problem. Too many times, they seem to refuse to do this.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

It's critical for many companies who need their service representatives to understand the geography and culture. For example, nothing is more frustrating than trying to change airline flights with a well spoken rep who doesn't know the difference between Chicago and Miami.

Or, culturally, we deal with tool product customer service. There's a strong culture of tool purchasers in the US that won't trust international reps—the accent is enough to raise suspicions (and, yes, a few respond with outright prejudice).

So, markedly? That depends on your situation. But overall, I believe it's smart to bring customer service back. That said, I'll be disappointed. It's been quite nice to be able to procure US customer service without competing against every other US company. :-)

Doug Garnett, Founder & CEO, Atomic Direct

Yes. Yes. Yes. It will improve a lot of things. People who speak in a way you can understand. Possibly more understanding of how to do things. Create new jobs. Throw away the scripted responses and teach them how to listen and act in an empathetic, helpful manner.

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Naomi K. Shapiro, Strategic Market Communications, Upstream Commerce

It is part of the process, but unless this is tied to an overall experience that is consistent across multiple interaction points, then it will ultimately be lost on the end consumer!

David Lubert, Industry Principal, Bridge-x Technologies

There is a resistance to this movement. The representatives offshore are getting much better. We use a distributor that has their call center in the Philippines. They have an accent of course, but are very fluent in English, they know the distribution system inside and out and respond to my issues incredibly quickly. I really would not like them to change this because I know that to get this level of service anywhere else, including the U.S., will be difficult without a lot of training.

The issue with offshore may not be the accent, although that is what consumers may say it is. It is the disconnect in culture, understanding of the consumer and the understanding in the products they sell. This gap is being bridged with experience and training.

Consumers are also becoming more accepting of the multicultural world and tolerant of accents.

However, this will get very interesting when we have mass adoption of two-way video communication. There may be another reason to move call centers closer to home. To reduce latency and improve customer experience.

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Gajendra Ratnavel, CEO, L Squared Digital Signage

The problem is that accountants are running our companies. Customer service should not be viewed as a non-productive expense. The state of customer service today is a direct result of the emphasis on operations and the bottom line.

I do not know how many companies fund their customer service departments from within their marketing department budgets. If companies viewed customer service as a marketing imperative and not as an operational expense, things would be different.

Martin Amadio, President, Inity InStore

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