Finding Out the Hard Way

Patrick Barnard
Group Managing Editor, TMCnet

Finding Out the Hard Way

Hawaiian Airlines might be the latest company to discover that outsourcing your call center operations to overseas isn’t always the greatest move. According to an article in the Honolulu Advertiser and reprinted in USA Today, Hawaiian Airlines’ customers are facing average hold times of 30 to 45 minutes when they call the airline’s call center in the Philippines – and apparently many of them are quite irate.

Although a representative from the airline claimed in the article that the delays were due to a spike in call volume, and would have occurred even if the call center was based in the U.S., he did admit that some of the agents in the call center are new trainees and that this was contributing to the long hold times.

According to the article, the airline’s call center operator, Citel, is hiring 40 additional workers to handle the increased volume. In addition, it is providing additional training to the agents to help them handle calls more expeditiously.

We’ve seen this happen before – where an airline farms out its call center operations to the Philippines or India and the level of customer service plummets. As the article points out, the airlines are more financially challenged than ever – with fuel prices and labor costs now rising – so it’s no wonder that they’re looking to cut costs whatever way they can.

At the same, though, it can be argued that they are causing more damage to their business than they are helping it. The call center is your customer touch-point – the front line between your organization and your customers – and if you make people wait on hold for 45 minutes and then give them lousy service on top of it, you’re going to lose customers. Even though most airlines get the bulk of their ticket sales through travel agencies and the Web, those customers who have bad experiences with the call center tend to tell their friends and family members about it. Plus, customers today have powerful new channels for spreading the word about lousy service, including social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube (not to mention blogs).

According to the article, Hawaiian Airlines started transferring its reservation call center to the Philippines in April, eliminating 200 positions in Hawaii. The airline, which said the move was necessary to cut costs, reportedly offered its customer service reps new jobs within the company or buyouts. Considering the current state of air travel in the U.S., this certainly isn’t the type of publicity that Hawaiian Airlines wants.

I will in no way suggest that the agents in the Hawaiian Airlines call center are poorly trained and that this is the source of the problem. It could be that they really are facing a spike in call volume that they didn't anticipate. But in my view the overall problem of poor customer service in overseas centers stems from a lack of adequate training. It is not that the Philippines and India have a lack of skilled workers, they do. The problem is the companies and third party outsourcers which are opening these overseas centers aren’t spending enough time training their reps before they put them live on the phones. Furthermore, I see language barrier problems contributing immensely to the problem of insufficient training.

I have a friend who works for a company that delivers training programs to call center employees overseas. He said one of the biggest challenges is finding skilled coaches and trainers who are fluent in both English and the native language(s) of the trainees. He explained that no matter how good the content is for a particular training program, if the coaches don’t thoroughly comprehend it, they can’t convey the concepts to the trainees in a way that’s meaningful. As a result, the finer points of customer service become “lost in translation.”

And when the agents don’t understand the finer points of delivering good customer service, and customers start yelling at them, there is a “cycle of shame” that kicks in and the agents eventually lose their desire to do a good job. We’ve seen this happen in the call centers here in the U.S., too.

The solution, in my view, lies in providing better training, and preparing the agents to handle every type of customer service scenario up-front. That means hiring coaches and trainers who are able to convey the finer points of customer service to the trainees - and who are able to provide continuous coaching to reinforce the initial training. From where I sit, and based on my few experiences dealing with overseas call centers, the elimination of language barriers, coupled with complete and thorough training of all agents, is the only way overseas outsourcing is really going to work.

It took while – and who knows why they’re just now figuring this out - but many call centers are now learning that well-trained agents are happier agents. And happier agents work harder and deliver better customer service. And better customer services leads to higher customer satisfaction. I don’t know about you, but I am yet to talk to a “happy” agent in an overseas call center. I know I’m stating the obvious, but something needs to be done about this.

1 Comment

The problem arises, as you rightly pointed out, when the outsourcers dont spend enough time training their agents. I have been an agent for Travelport's cheaptickets call center operations based in India and found it out myself when I was trained. Not more than 3 out of the total batch of 20 were well abreast with the process when they hit the floor (higher attrition might be one of the cause but then they do nothing to retain people!!). And this was known to the trainers and the managers but because they cannot wait to please their clients, they deliberately push them to work even before they are ready. Further, no requests are entertained for a re-training as that would mean 'loss of time and energy'. Such approach ultimately displeases the clients and the customers equally and the outsourcer and the outsourced equally have to bear the outcome. The working environment, too, is not amicable but extra burdens (that are really not needed) are put on the agents pushing them to work (irrespective of whether they like it or not). Also, no requests are entertained even if the agent wishes to switch his process where he thinks he can do better as that would again mean a re-training and a search for substitution! Even the BPO aims at cutting their costs and sometimes even create a hostile environment for the employees to leave as they know that more people can be hired to work on a lesser salary. Thus, just adding to more attrition.

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