Call Center Blues

I left Manila in June 2000 when the Call Center Industry was yet in its infancy.  It wasn’t such a big deal  back then because the existing call centers mostly catered to local companies.  In the last 10 years, there has been a lot of changes in this industry, and when you dial a customer service hotline here in the US, your call is most likely to land in 2 other coutries unless you get lucky and find yourself a US helpline.  You will either get India or the Philippines.

While most call center agents in the Philippines think that they can get away with it, the English is good, the accent not as thick, but there is a certain difference in the way spoken English comes across back home and here.  It’s not just the twang, and certainly not just the pronunciation and enunciation of words.  All I  have to do is listen to the opening line introducing the person answering the call and it’s as if a lightbulb lights up in my head saying “Manila here!”.

Don’t get me wrong — for the most part, I’m proud that our call centers have bagged such clients as Dell, IBM, Chase, Citibank, Siemens, Disney Shopping Online and American Express to name a few.  My Fortune 50 company is seriously considering looking at Manila as a possible outsourcing resource although we have a full-blown unit handling certain areas of our international and stateside operations in India.  I usually play along and just let the conversation go until I am about to say goodbye and surprise the other person on the line by saying “Salamat” or else hitting them pointblank with “I”m calling Manila, right?”

The first give away is always the greeting which, more often than not starts with a “Thank you (pronounced “thane-k you”) for calling… xxx”.  Then there’s the name of the call center agent answering (Maribel, Bel, Daisy, May– and a slew of other common Pinoy nicknames.).  As the conversation progresses, you hear a “gonna” and a “wanna” here and there which, even when I was barely 10, I was told was a no-no for educated or business conversation.  Sure, you hear it in the movies in regular conversation, but in business oriented communication, you are more likely to hear “going to” or “goin’ to” rather than “gonna” which even here is considered slang.

For all the training being given back home to disguise the accent and make it sound like someone here in the US is actually answering, there is still much to be done in terms of acquiring the conversational rhythm and dynamics that would normally take place if the call were answered by someone on this side of the world.  We are so used to going straight to the point back home that when a customer service hotline picks up your call, they go straight to asking what the problem is and getting to the nitty-gritty of it. 

Let’s just say I am calling Juana in another department on another floor in our spacious offices in Makati to follow up on a document or report I was waiting for.  The conversation would go something like this:

“Hello, Juana — it’s Pinay.  Do you have the report on what the boss ordered for lunch the last six months ready?  Can you please send it over?”

“Sure.  I’m just formatting the spreadsheet.  I’ll send it to you in 15 minutes.”

“Okay, thanks.”

Now  let’s bring Juana to New York where she would be Jane —

“Hi, Jane — it’s Pinay.. how are you?”

“Oh, I’m doing great, Pinay — and you?”

“Just doing fine here.. we finally get some sun!”

“I know, can you believe that?  It’s about time..!”

“You’re telling me.  Anyway, the reason I’m calling is because I was wondering if that report on what the boss ordered for lunch the last six months is already done.  Would you mind sending it over to me please?”

“Oh, sure — I’m just reformatting the spreadsheet.  Give me another 15 minutes and I’ll shoot it over via e-mail.  Does that work?”

“Sure thing.  I’d really appreciate that.  Thanks, Jane!”

“You’re welcome.. talk to you later, Pinay!”.

I don’t think the difference needs any explaining.  It’s the conversational tone which I have noticed revolves heavily around the cultural nuances of those talking.  Could it be a prevalent fear of being answered in the negative when you ask someone who calls into a customer service hotline how they’re doing that prevents us from asking?  I remember that in most every hotel we’ve gone to in the US and overseas, it had been customary for the front desk personnel to ask as we check out how our stay was or how we enjoyed our stay.  Whenever we get the chance to, we try to spend a few days in a local hotel in Manila if we can get a good rate, and we have never been asked this question.  We happened to ask someone I knew who worked the front desk in one of the hotels we stayed in (Edsa Shangri-la) back in 2002 why they didn’t ask the question, and she timidly told me it was because they were afraid the customer would actually respond with a complaint about something in the hotel.)  Given that frame of mind, could it be the reason why we are often not asked by our Manila call center agents “How are you today?” because they’re afraid the person calling is simmering with anger and is ready to scream at them from thousands of miles away?  It’s a valid fear, but it’s also the very point of a customer service hotline.  You’re supposed to be there to provide customer service and to placate the unhappy ones and answer the questions of those seeking information.  There have been a few notable exceptions — but it seems to be just that: an exception, rather than being the norm.  Right there and then you know you’re not talking to someone here in the US — and one barrier goes up to more effective communication.

So I call a customer service hotline with a problem or question in mind and Manila picks up.  It’s always been standard to ask “How can I help you today?” — lately, I noticed that some call center agents will ask “Who do I have on the line please?”  (And I say, “Pinay New Yorker”).  And a rather awkward but not totally inappropriate question follows: ” Can I call you by your first name, is that okay?”  (And I say, “Uhm, sure, go ahead.”)  Uhm.. awkward with a capital A.  Of course I’ll say go ahead — it doesn’t put me at ease — it puts the customer service agent at ease.  Now if I were terribly upset at something, I’d have a good mind to say “Of course your may not!” — but I have a soft spot for Filipino call center agents, so I let it slide.

Then there’s the giggling and jokes and tomfoolery you hear in the background which gives the actual locale of the call center away, even if the call center agent manages to convince the caller it’s an American answering the phone.  There were even times when the call center agent would break out into a giggle in the middle of what is obviously a scripted spiel, probably because some clown in front or around her is trying to break her composure.  Cute, sure.  And in the boredom of staying awake when all of Metro Manila is sleeping soundly and the United States is abuzz and trying to keep our call centers in business, I’m sure our call center agents have had to resort to all sorts of gimmicks to entertain themselves.  I can live with that — except when my blood is curdling due to frustration and I hear snickering in the background and worse, my call center agent breaks into a guffaw or a giggle unmindful of my seething anger.  Totally unprofessional.  I’ve had many customer service calls answered by India — and struggle as I might to understand them beyond the accent, I have never had a call center agent from India break out into a giggle as if someone was tickling him on the other line like it has happened when Manila answers.  Again, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to pull down Juan de la Cruz the call center agent here — I’m just trying to point out where we need to pull our act together.  I’m actually saddened by the lack of professionalism this smacks of, because even among the bosses here in New York, they know hands down, the Filipinos do better as call center agents than their other counterparts around the world because of their command of the English language.

I even go out of my way to be helpful when I know a Filipino is calling to inquire about the proper business contact in my company to sell their business ideas or services to.  Where I would normally just give the basic information in as perfunctory a manner as I can, always hurrying to get off the line — when I know it’s Manila calling, I make it worth their time and effort.  So it’s really disconcerting when I get a research company (or one purporting to be such) doing a compensation study asking for contact information for certain department heads, and then in the middle of the exchange, “Bel” suddenly starts laughing and the line is cut.  Bel, obviously, decided to just hang up rather than break out in loud laughter at the risk of irritating the other person on the line.  I put the phone down in disbelief and disgust.  But that isn’t the end of it.  Bel calls again.

So I try to put one over her and talk to her in straight Tagalog: “Meron ng tumawag kanina dito na tinatanong din yung mga tinanong niyo. Kayo rin ba yon?”  And I do catch her offgaurd and she pretends she doesn’t understand what the heck I am saying because she starts mumbling an “Excuse me, I didn’t understand what you said…” — and totally pissed off me just tells her she can pretend as much as she wants but I know I’m talking to Manila.  Then she hangs up.

Totally unprofessional.  Totally sad.  And we think the only reason we’re losing out to other countries in the call center market is because they are selling their labor cheaper.  That just doesn’t cut it when we know we are and can do better.   More than anything else, we need to take this business seriously because it’s something we can be truly good at.

In a business environment where even here in the US, accents and language differences are pronounced and easily tolerated as borders disappear — you find that it’s not even so much the difference between how you say “Thank you” here and back home.  Sure, that counts, too — but more than that, it’s the professionalism and quality of work in general.  I have seen additional frustration creeping in when people on my side of the world realize they are being answered by an outsourced customer service hotline, and the person on the other end of the line doesn’t seem to know anything beyond the proforma spiels being read from a manual you can hear them leafing through  as you ask your question.

Is it lack of training?  Lack of supervision?  One bad call can put a call center company to shame even as they count a hundred excellent customer service conversations.  It only takes one “Bel” for me to call the other admins who will answer a similar query to warn them not to deal with this vendor calling.   In the meantime, here’s keeping my fingers crossed my next call being picked up by a call center in Manila turns out to be one of the “better” ones.

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3 thoughts on “Call Center Blues

  1. Wow, very nice post, ninang. Made me more aware my regular/casual conversation words over business conversation words. This will surely help me during my future job interviews!

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  2. Cream

    Nice post Dinna and SO TRUE in many points. I can totally relate esp the part about the “giggling” and background noise. You hear the other agents telling stories, giggling, leaving and saying bye to everyone etc. I’ve been tempted to let the agent I was talking to know that everyone else behind her can be heard and she needs to let them know. Maybe I should have, but didnt. You would think this is common sense especially in the environment they work in. Lack of training? possibly. Maybe the trainer themselves dont realize this is happening or think this is something that needs to be addressed. Who knows. They need to get with it tho. Maybe the more we talk about it, someone out there will listen and spread the word. (and fix it!)

    I must say tho that for the most part, my calls taken by manila have been mostly good. I notice that they do try to strike up a conversation more and ask how Im doing. However, I still feel that “awkwardness” come through. Know what I mean? Something else that irritates me is when they try to adopt an american accent and it comes out exaggerated and fake. Its just funny sometimes because when they try to talk slang, I try to imagine being in that call center listening to everyone try to talk that way at the same time, when in reality they sound totally different when they get off work. Do they laugh at each other because of it? I think i would if I was there. But, they do what they have to do. =) Have to give them points for trying. No one has ever denied that I was talking to someone in the Philippines tho.

    I am glad that the call center business is booming in the Philippines. Like you mentioned, “Filipinos do better as call center agents than their other counterparts around the world because of their command of the English language.” With some adjustments, things can only get better. =)

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  3. I enjoyed reading your personal experience and evaluation on the Philippines’ BPO industry, particularly on the customer contact companies.

    Since I know people who work as trainers at a couple of bigtime call centers here, I know companies are trying their best in supervising their agents and improving their performance to give the best service possible– these companies are even connecting to schools and colleges to provide classes to make students geared for call center work.

    I guess there’s only a certain type of people, a portion of the population, who are really cut out for this kind of work.

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