Greed can kill call center business
- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - August 8, 2014 - 12:00am

Remember the black tiger prawn industry of the ‘90s? It used to be a major export earner. Then it was over. Greed took over and those in the industry overstocked their ponds, disease brought down quality and quantity, and the business was dead in no time.

The same thing could happen to our call center industry if we are not careful. For an industry with aspirations of matching the $20 billion annual revenues of the OFWs, we should not lower performance standards that will eventually kill the business.

I received an e-mail from one of my California-based daughters last Sunday that made me wonder if we are stretching our manpower capability so as to endanger the call center business. My daughter related the frustrating experience of her Argentinian-American husband with Amazon.com’s Philippine-based call center agents. Here is my daughter’s story:

“… since it was on speaker phone I could hear the customer service rep and could tell she was Filipina based on her accent. Achi (my daughter’s husband) would relay the issue, she would respond and he asked if there was something that could be done… the agent kept repeating the last few phrases she had just said every time Achi would ask or say something.

“I told him, that’s a call center in Manila, she’s reading from a script and doesn’t comprehend what’s going on. He asked for a supervisor and the supervisor was more helpful, but the phone line got disconnected and he didn’t even bother calling back. We called again and couldn’t get a hold of the supervisor.

“So when Achi called again, he got a CSR that I am assuming was based here (US) because of her accent, the way she talked and the way she went above and beyond to help him with the issue. She said she would call Fedex and figure out where the package was, call and email him before she gets off her shift to update him and even follow up with him on Monday. It was a frustrating experience dealing with the Filipino CSRs.”

My daughter then sent me a blog written by an American customer of Amazon.com with a similar sad experience with Filipino call center agents.

The blogger complained the call center agent was not trained enough: “I am at a loss as to why they are using a Philippines-based call center where, at least the rep I dealt with yesterday, has NO CLUE as to how the Kindle program works and acted as she was illiterate!”

Then the blogger went too far and made the stupid comment which my daughter said, made her blood boil. The blogger said some things that denigrated the intellectual capacity of Filipinos in general. Here is the offending observation:

“I had no idea that the Philippines is now the Call Center Capital of the World! That makes no sense to me. I like Filipinos. Very nice, genuine people and I think that they have some of the best looking ladies in the world. [Yes, I have been to the Philippines.]

“But, in all fairness, I don’t think of them as ‘intellectuals’! Sorry. Do you know of any Filipinos in high executive spots in the US or running US high-tech companies? Indians, for all their shortcomings (and probably because there are so many), do produce some good talent.”

That got my blood boiling too. I forwarded the offensive blog to Mariels Almeda Winhoffer, IBM Philippines president and country manager who can set this guy straight. Or maybe Dado Banatao, the Filipino scientist and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley can tell him how wrong he is.

Being defensive about that affront to our intellectual capacity is probably an understandable reaction. But I think that racist remark should also wake us up to some very important realities.

First and most important reality is the fragility of our call center industry. Our basic selling point now is cost… we are cheap compared to US-based call centers. Our facility for English and the accent that’s more understandable to Americans than Indian English, is also an important selling point.

But we must also realize that becoming the Call Center Capital of the World means we are up there on a world stage and we have to perform at world quality best… puede na will not do it.

Call center jobs are difficult because this involves irate customers with problems. Call center agents do not just answer phones like a telephone operator of old, but must help solve customers’ problems.

In the case of whoever is running the Amazon.com call center here, it seems obvious that they have failed to properly train their agents before fielding them. Both my son-in-law and that impertinent blogger found the agents who dealt with them lacking in technical proficiency or knowledge.

I can understand that it is now very difficult to recruit qualified call center agents, given that call centers have mushroomed all over the country like hot pan de sal. But lowering the recruitment standards just to get the numbers required by a contract is the fastest way to give our call centers as a whole a bad reputation… like what happened to the Indians ahead of us.

I asked a close friend who runs call centers here, in China and in the US what he thought of the complaints about the Amazon.com Philippine call centers. Here is his reply:

“Boo,

“This is the price of success. The whole world discovered the Philippines.

“The pool of capable customer service agents has dwindled.  Nobody from the Tier 1 schools wants to be a call center agent. And soon, even tier 2 school graduates would rather aspire to work for the new hotels, casinos and the airlines.

“The industry now employs 400,000 growing at 15 per cent a year. The call centers simply steal agents from each other. Salaries are up the roof.  GOOD agents start at P25k to P30k a month.

“And, I don’t think Amazon pays their people that much in the Philippines. That’s the bottom line.”

Okay… that confirms my worse fears. I am not sure if government should step in and regulate the call center operations to protect the national brand and the continued viability of the business. Should we now cap the number of call centers opening… even impose a mandatory halt for opening new call centers until the manpower problem is properly addressed?

When the business was just starting, call centers had very high standards such that only 3 or 4 out of a hundred applicants were taken in. Then they decided to reprocess the next 20, providing training for a few months to make them qualified for hiring.

Maybe, they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel and making do with job applicants who are not normally qualified to be hired. Maybe the language skills are not as good and maybe not even intelligent enough to think on their feet while transacting business with an irate customer from abroad.

This industry should not be allowed to grow beyond our ability to properly staff it. We should always protect the integrity of the Philippine brand and not just go out for the quick buck.

Indeed, if something bad happens to our call center business, the repercussions are serious. Our property sector, for one, will be in trouble.

   Business rentals are growing in a bullish fashion on the back of the call center business. So are all those micro residential condos of developers like SMDC and Megaworld… where will they be if the call center business tumbles? Our consumer led economic growth could tumble as well.

I e-mailed DTI Secretary Greg Domingo about this problem and here is his reply:

“Our phenomenal success in this space has resulted in a catch up mode with regards to training but despite our lack (of training) I believe we are still the best choice worldwide today.

“The good thing is that all hands are on deck with schools, government and private sector always trying to address these problems.      

“Thanks for the feedback Boo! Will relay it to the industry. Best regards.”

I sure hope the industry will not allow greed to quickly destroy the national brand. A company like Amazon.com may be forced by negative customer feedback to take the business away from us… and this is true too for other call centers similarly situated.

I realize the long term solution is better education. And that’s what worries me because this may take quite a while to happen, if at all. Our call center industry should not go the way of the black tiger prawns.

 

Redesign

 

Found this in one of my e-groups.

God asked wives: I’m redesigning men with new hi tech features. Any suggestions??

Women: Yes, that joy stick made for us should be password protected.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

 

ACHI AGENTS AMAZON BUSINESS CALL CENTER CENTERS COM
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