The Pros and Cons of Long Distance, Darwin Magazine, Feb 2002.

Moving your call center overseas might be the right answer but think before you act

The labor pool in India is a call center outsourcer's dream: college graduates are willing and eager to work for just $3,000 to $6,000 a year&151;the equivalent of an $80,000 annual paycheck in America. But Art Flew, president of U.S.-based MphasiS BPO, insists that quality was his motivation for building call centers in India. "It was the only place we could find university-level people with good command of the English language and where [handling calls] was seen as a profession or a career. We can get the right attitude," he says. "First we attack the quality problem, then deliver cost savings." But the savings can be significant. Despite greater telecom expenses to route calls to India, has redundant networks and two undersea cables), the favorable labor costs mean that the company's clients achieve savings of at least 30 percent and sometimes much more, according to Flew. The time zone differential also lets companies hand off support to India after 5 p.m. for round-the-clock coverage.

With so many U.S. call centers located in America's accent-neutral heartland, won't customers notice a difference when talking to an agent overseas? In fact, customers tend not to notice accents as long as their questions are answered, according to Venkat Tadanki, vice president of sales and marketing for Daksh eServices, which operates contact centers in India. If the agent fumbles the answer, then the caller is more likely to notice an accent. MphasiS BPO's Flew says that the bigger issue is helping Indians understand American accents. Nonetheless, every MphasiS BPO agent goes through a six-week training program that covers voice modulation (Indians tend to talk fast) and accent neutralization. Agents also learn that Americans act very familiar with strangers and generally aren't expressing fondness or making comparisons when they pepper their speech with the word like. By clueing agents into some of the basics of American culture (holidays, baseball, football, major department stores, the fact that the Cleveland Indians are a baseball team) the training helps agents handle questions without appearing totally naive.

But offshore outsourcing does bring some extra risks, says Colleen Amuso, a research director with Gartner. Infrastructure reliability and availability are not necessarily the same in India, the Caribbean or Singapore as they are in the states. And companies thinking of outsourcing need to be aware of labor conditions and hiring and training practices, which are much harder to monitor from half a world away, says Amuso. Managing training from afar can also be a challenge; for that reason, if product support information tends to change every month, outsourcing overseas could be problematic. "The more you can script, the easier it is," says Flew.

Despite the potential cost benefits, offshore call center outsourcing hasn't caught on as fast as many thought it would, says Incoming Calls Management Institute President Brad Cleveland. "You often hear the analogy to manufacturing 20 or 30 years ago," he says. "But this isn't creating shoes." Cleveland thinks call center operations are too close to the customer&151;and information associated with call centers changes too often&151;for some companies to feel comfortable sending their customers' calls overseas.