Quality Care May Not Be Enough for Offshore Contact Centers
Despite a long-held belief that the quality of a customer service interaction is what matters most to the consumer, two new studies reveal that some users are genuinely unhappy with offshore support services--some because of bad service, but many because of the location. And, the studies show, age may be the single most reliable predictor of who will tolerate overseas assistance and who won't. The results of both surveys suggest that customer satisfaction is generally positive regarding service interactions.
"The American Consumer Reacts to the Call Center Experience and the Offshoring of Service Calls" was conducted by BenchmarkPortal on behalf of Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality and staffing firm Kelly Services. According to that study, more than 85 percent of respondents feel their most recent call center experience met or exceeded their expectations. But that contentedness is contrasted by the 65 percent of respondents who say they would likely decrease or discontinue their interaction with a company that had outsourced its customer service call center operation overseas.
"2005 Support Demand Research Series," another report, is due in early October from the SSPA and Tech Strategy Partners, which provided CRM
magazine an exclusive first look at the survey's results. That study also finds that most callers were happy with their support interactions--but that those who were calling overseas were three to four times more likely to be dissatisfied.
Only 11 percent of respondents to the SSPA study said that domestic support reps performed poorly in terms of customer-service skills. Forty-five percent said it was unhappy with the same skills in offshore support reps. Offshore reps performed only marginally better when it came to technical skills: 13 percent of respondents rated domestic support reps as poor; 38 percent said the same about offshore reps.
"There are a number of people out there who feel they've had a negative experience with offshoring," says J.B. Wood, president and CEO of the SSPA. Despite what Wood calls "a lot of progress in the past six to twelve months improving the quality" of support centers overseas it may not be enough. "No matter how well vendors do in delivering great service offshore, they're only going to win over a section of the population," he says.
Both studies, in fact, reveal a progressive age bias against offshore support centers. In the SSPA report 63 percent of respondents between the ages 45 and 54 were against the idea of U.S. companies using overseas contact centers. By comparison, only 34 percent of respondents between 18 and 25 shared that sentiment. (Overall, the share of respondents voicing disapproval of offshore support centers was 49 percent.)
Wood says this bias trumps even a high-quality experience. "Even among the people who felt that the quality was good, the age [bias] still existed," he says. "As the age went up fewer would accept the idea of offshoring."
That disapproval may not be enough to dissuade companies, however. "The political backlash toward offshore is not deterring market adoption," writes META Group analyst Dean Davison in a recent research note. "Rather, public perception is another item to be managed in the process of moving offshore." But companies may end up making a distinction between technical support calls and customer service calls. The Purdue study reveals that 64 percent of companies claim they would never outsource customer service calls.
Neither study seems to have taken into consideration the possibility that the calls consumers were most happy with may have been handled by overseas service reps successfully masking their location. In the Purdue report 84 percent of the callers "knew or had the impression" that their call was being handled within the United States, while 60 percent of respondents in the SSPA report felt they were being handled within the United States. "It's probable that a significant number of people who said they'd never spoken to an offshore rep actually had and simply couldn't tell," admits SSPA's Wood. That means it's possible that some of the calls consumers were happy with may in fact have been handled overseas, without their knowledge, thereby skewing the results--falsely inflating the satisfaction figures for onshore calls, and magnifying the share of overseas calls that caused dissatisfaction.
Regardless of the accuracy of consumers' perceptions, Wood says, the new reality remains unchanged. "An important dimension to this whole issue is that the vast majority of consumers don't want to pay extra for quality customer service," he says. "If the customers are unwilling to pay for the service, these companies are doing the right thing to find high-quality but lower-cost measures. If consumers are unwilling to pay, [companies] will have to put that additional cost back into the price. That doesn't benefit anyone."
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