Recently I wrote and article for this column suggesting that those who wanted to work in a Philippines call center or BPO provider might want to consider trying for such a job while they were still living in the USA .. since 9 out of 10 of the leading call center companies in the Philippines are US based, and many have as many (or even more) locations in the USA than the Philippines.
The article struck a chord with a number of readers and more people than I thought wrote in telling about their own Call Center experiences. Great! I really love it when my crazy article ideas actually match up with people’s interests.
But I Sense a Bit Of The Unknown
I couldn’t help but notice however that a lot of people’s ideas about Call centers and what they do re a bit one dimensional. It’s actually quite amazing to me how much more there is to the business than just the standard stereotype of “agents” or CSR’s (Customer Service Representatives), sitting in little booths waiting for the phone to ring with an angry customer on the lines.
Direct CSR operations:
It is true that the model of the US customer calling to complain about billing, service, or to update and address or something like that does make up a big segment of the market. But since most of you reading this already have a pretty good idea of that business model in your head, we won’t spend too much time on that. There are so many other business models being used in call centers today.
Second Tier or Tandem Agents:
Almost all Westerners have tales of language problems with Philippine CSR’s. Either they have had bad experiences themselves, or they have plenty friends whom they know who have had bad experiences. There are even many Americans out there whom we might say are “Spring Loaded to the Pissed Off Position” the moment they even hear a voice with an accent. They don’t even need the reality of a problem situation, they are angry as soon as they hear a voice with an accent and no matter how well the agent does his or her job, the call is liable to end badly.
So a tactic many call center clients use is splitting up the work by way of accent. Instead of having, say 100 native-English agents in the USA to take calls (expensive and difficult .. it isn’t that easy to hire good CSR’s in the Philippine or in the USA, they hire say 10 or 20 USA-accented agents. When an agent picks up the call, the US customer calling hear nothing but a good old Texas twang, or Georgia drawl, or New York “Toity toid and toid” “home boy” type accent. Great experience for the caller.
What the caller doesn’t know is that at the same time the US-based CSR picked up the call, a “shadow” agent here in the Philippines picked up, and listening in, started looking up the customer’s information while s/he listen to what the complaint was. The US-based agent then says something like, “thanks for bringing that to our attention, Ms. Customer, just hold a moment while I look up your records.
But the US CSR doesn’t do any data entry or looking up of anything, s/he goes on immediately to answer the next wafting call, and just like with the first inbound call, another “Philippine Shadow” also is connected and starts looking up the records for customer number two.
Meanwhile, “Shadow” number one has found the answer and types it on the screen for the “front facing” agent in the US, who can then reconnect to caller number one with the answer to the original question.
Working like a well-oiled team, a tandem operation like this can enable the US-based agent to easily handle 5 or 6 times more calls per hour than even the most efficient US agent could ever handle working “solo”.
So even if you place a call and hear nothing but a US voice on the other end, your call may have still been handled in the Philippines by one of more “silent partners”.
Tech Support For Tech Support Agents:
Have you ever looked into the “Instruction Manual” for a complex piece of software? Wow! Difficult. Talk about “rocket science”. So you pick up the phone, call the 1-800 support number, and friendly guy named Bill, who sounds like he is from Nebraska (because he is) answers the phone and asks how he can help. Just like in the “Tandem” example above, at the same time “Bill” picks up your call, a guru on that particular software named “Juan” listens in. While Bill guides you through some simple checks to see what your problem might be, Juan searches the engineering manuals, tries to replicate your problem on his own computer, and if need be, can even open up a direct line to one of the software engineers who wrote the code for the program back in Silicon Valley, or (more likely), Mumbai.
While Bill keeps up a running conversation with you, Juan figures out what your problem really is and then silently texts the solution to Bill on Bill’s computer screen.
Bill walks you through the corrective action, your software now responds the way you thought it should, and you say goodbye, silently thanking your lucky stars that you didn’t have to0 deal with any of those darned hard to understand foreigners who steal so many US jobs.
Think this is a far-fetched example? Hardly, it happens all the time. It’s a very common way of providing tech support these days.
I’ll give you one more similar example. I got this story direct from one of the US corporate executive who was directly involved in the problem and the solution.
It seems there was a US company whose business was providing odds, point spreads and scores for American sports teams. I suppose this service might have had something to do with sports betting or something like that, but I don’t bet so I’ll never know
Anyway, the “sports Statistics” company hired a team from a call center in the Philippines. They had the best training, were all carefully vetted regarding their accents and pronunciation, and the statistics system they used to look up the information on was top notch. Some of it was very complex, the customers record of “picks” and bets, win-loss percentages, accuracy of picking the “spreads”, etc. Not the sort or stuff your typical college student/part-timer could easily be trained on back in the USA. Much more than just “phone answering”.
Everything was going along very nicely until one night an important customer of the company called up to get the final score and point spread on a baseball game that Philadelphia had just played.
“Boyet”, the Philippine CSR representative looked up the information almost instantly and replied in seconds to the customer, “Sir, the Sixers won by a score of 6 to 5.”
His speed, accuracy and accent were all near perfect, but, of course as most of you reading this know, the Philadelphia baseball team is the “Phillies” and the “Sixers” are an NBA basketball team.
Wow! How utterly incompetent. What a horrible mistake. How could the ‘foreigners’ not know the names of the teams? (How many pro and college basketball teams from the Philippines can anyone out there name? Basketball, both college and pro is a “big business” here in the Philippines, but obviously the names of the teams are not a big deal to non-Filipinos.
The executives involved in handling and “fixing” the complaint at first decided on an intensive, expensive and somewhat prolonged training program to bring all the CSR’s in Manila “up to speed” on all the many different team names (and nicknames” in all the varied US professional and college sports teams. A daunting task, starting from scratch.
Then, when they looked at the size (and cost) of the training task before them, they got smart and used their own industry to solve their own problem.
They re-routed all their inbound calls to a company in Omaha and put a small team of “Bills” and “Harrys” and “Marys” and “Jills” to work answering the calls. Pretty easy to find young people off the street who don’t have to do anything except talk and talk and talk some more about sports.
A customer calls in, “Jane” answers the phone, and while she is making small talk about sports to the client, “How ‘bout those Mets lately, huh”?, back in Manila, “Boyet” is looking up the scores and other requested stats, typing on “Jane’s” screen, and she then relays the info to the happy customer. Jane really doesn’t have to know much about sports, she has whole team behind her who have world-class data at their finger tips, all Jane has to do is make ‘nice nice” to the customers calling in, and sound American. And, if you think about it, did the parent company, whom “Jane” and “Boyet” both work for, although they are on different continents, actually ‘steal’ any American jobs?
Some may insist that they did, but others may think, as I do, that the company actually created the opportunity for unskilled or semi-skilled US folks to find a job that otherwise wouldn’t even have been available. (More thoughts on “stealing jobs” and who actually does own jobs here: A Lot Depends Upon Whose Ox Is Being Gored
But Wait, There’s More.
This has already grown longer than I expected it to, and yet I have only covered a tiny segment of what “call centers” here in the Philippines is all about. All I have talked about so far has been “inbound” services. A huge art of the business is “outbound” services .. yeah, those irritating “telemarketing” calls you get at home.
And more than half the business here is BPO work where employees may never talk on the phone to a customer.
I’ll judge by the comments to this article if you want to here more. I’ve got a bunch of real-world examples of foreigners making money out o0f the call center/BPO business segment too, without the slavery aspect of one of those J*O*B*s I am so against. Happy Calling.