'Tis the Season for Bad Customer Service

December 19, 2011

What's really behind our frustration with offshore customer service call centers?

Today I am seven months pregnant and cranky. I cannot leave the house without wanting to start fights with people. Nevermind the fact that it's the holiday season, when people are at their most insufferable.

Makes sense that I did about 85% of my holiday shopping online, just as I did last year and the year before that and, very likely, many years before that. I prefer online shopping, not just because I'm a pro at it, but also because it requires minimal human interaction. I don't have to deal with sales clerks or other customers or long lines. If I have a question about a particular product, or if I want to know if something is cheaper elsewhere, I can just hit Command+T and Google it in a new tab.

All of this is to say that I'm a very low-maintenance shopper, and I try to avoid dealing with the whole shopping infrastructure as much as possible. And when I do have to interact with customer service, I really try to be as polite as possible (yes, even in my pregnant state) because I know and appreciate how much the job sucks. I don't even like returning stuff. But I've somehow had awful luck in online shopping this year and have had technical issues -- where orders were hanging or account information was completely wrong upon login -- that have forced me to contact various Customer Service lines multiple times.

And I feel really conflicted about complaining of their lack of effectiveness.

Without fail, each time I've been in contact with a customer service representative in either India or the Philippines. Most of the correspondence has been via email, which I've found is usually farmed out to India. The few times I've had to speak to a CS rep on the phone, those calls have typically gone to the Philippines.

I feel conflicted because outsourced customer service is a sensitive topic and conversations about it often devolve into racist, xenophobic attacks, and I don't want to fan the flames.

But it isn't necessarily that the various customer service reps and I are not understanding each other on a fundamental level. I may not speak Tagalog fluently but I understand it, as well as Taglish
and Filipino accents of various thicknesses, with pretty decent
precision. Although this may just be my biased opinion, Filipino accents
generally aren't any less intelligble than Australian or British
accents. I also work closely with teams in India on a daily basis and
have never had issues concerning a language barrier, especially not via email.

It's that, on the lowest rung of the ladder, they're literally ineffective -- they work from scripts, they don't have consistent knowledge about known issues on their websites, they don't seem to be given any tools to effect actual changes to make customers happy, and they might be a little less willing to farm us off to a supervisor just because we butter them up or chew them out. Nearly all of the CS reps I've corresponded with have only been able to reword the exact problem I described to them, and then tell me I'd have to wait until the issue resolved itself on its own.

For example, I had an issue with buying a membership to a popular website's shipping club, and while the site said the membership approval would take minutes, it ended up taking hours. I was waiting in the wings with an order, ready to throw even more money at the company, but I needed to wait until this membership went through. I contacted customer service assuming I could give them whatever additional information they needed and they'd be able to take me out of the queue and approve my membership manually, but instead I was told to wait a few more minutes, maybe an hour. A few more hours passed and because I'm impatient as all get-out, I decided to contact customer service again, and was told to wait another day. I then perused the support forums, which are largely run by customers themselves, and realized this was an issue that had been plaguing the site for quite a while -- one customer had been in "Pending Approval" purgatory for weeks, calling customer service about as often as I had, before it got resolved.

These are not issues that have anything to do with a language barrier. This may very well be the same level of power even onshore customer service reps would have. Maybe we Americans expect that if we bitch hard enough and put up enough of a fight (or, on the contrary, if we are polite enough), an onshore customer service rep would be more inclined to send us up the chain just to get us off the phone. And maybe a domestically outsourced customer service rep would not necessarily feel the same gravity of losing a customer and risking bad word-of-mouth. Really crappy customer service exists in the United States, too.

But, you know, stick an accent on it and it immediately becomes a communication problem. If only these customer service reps could understand English, they could actually service their customers! If only these customer service reps could speak understandable English, they'd tell me what I want to hear!

I finally complained (in a polite way, I guess -- being a bitchy customer makes me feel icky) on the same boards the next morning and promptly got a call from customer service. This rep must have been higher up the CS chain -- she was the same rep referenced in other threads who dealt promptly with complaints on the customer forum -- and she had the power to approve my membership manually so I could place a real order. She was clear and courteous, very responsive to my politeness, and fixed my problem in less than five minutes over the phone. She was also from a call center in the Philippines.

We know that moving call centers offshore allows these sites spend less money on training for their reps -- but when it also means reps aren't given the right tools actually to solve problems, then maybe it's the customers who are really being trained here: to self-serve, to self-sell, to find our own answers on the web (via reviews, lists, and other user-generated content), and only use the customer service lines when we've exhausted all other options. So to write off failed customer service as a language barrier or cultural issue just lets these companies off the hook. Self-service looks like the new retail strategy. It's just unfortunate that we're getting there simply by losing faith in decent customer service.  


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.



It's all about saving money though I understand some companies are returning their customer service back to stateside. Seems the savings and customer service quality wasn't where they were supposed to be. . Americans are *extremely* price driven and where ever a company can save money, they will. You can't expect great service and still get the lowest price, service and knowledgeable representatives cost big money. I have had customers walk away over a 2 or 3% price difference so I speak with some experience in the matter. . On the other hand, I have found some of those Bangalore babes are a bit flirty. Keeping mind they are on the job, I kept it light and just a bit cheeky. I will say the female techs I dealt with tried their very best but do not know all the product quirks. I have virtually no experience with male ones.