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Do Foreign Accents Harm the Customer Experience?


By Dan Clay

For years I’ve been saying “No” (a firm “No” at that) but recent findings push me to temper this inference.

Like any good researcher, my shift in opinion comes with plenty of data—particularly important for a topic rife with some very loud assumptions. 

CCC’s been measuring customer service preferences for over 5 years, and we always came to the same conclusion about service with an accent: it’s a constant “noisemaker.”  A customer complains about the offshore location only when something else goes wrong on the call (let’s say it was a transfer).  Poor service is seen as a product of the accent—“I didn’t understand the rep” says the customer—but the real problem is the transfer (and the customer would be just as negative if he had been transferred by an onshore rep).  If the transfer hadn’t happened, then the customer would have had no issue with the accent. 

Customers notice it, they mention it in surveys, but our data showed us that if the customer received proper service, rep accent had no meaningful impact on the customer experience.

This conclusion was corroborated by data from our prominent offshore members and bolstered by my nagging faith in global brotherhood (the citizenry behind “We Are the World” couldn’t possibly devalue discussions simply because the service rep sounded different than the weatherman).

Then this happened.  The recession not only changed where we eat and how we shop, but what we value in the customer experience. In 2009, CCC conducted an extensive study on customer’s service preferences using conjoint analysis – a rigorous method to tease out these preferences. We asked 18,000+ customers about things like self vs. live service, tolerance for wait times, and (of course) preference of accent.

This survey revealed something we hadn’t seen before: a clear aversion to offshore service.  Of all the attributes we tested, customers were most averse to offshoring.  In fact, customers were willing to wait more than 12 minutes on hold to speak with an onshore rep.  

How can we explain this seeming shift in customer preference?  When the going gets tough, the tough get protectionist.  PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi recently told an Indian news channel that nationalism is a natural consequence of a global recession; a “huge amount of joblessness in certain countries” means “protectionist tendencies are inevitable.”

While it’s interesting to examine the causes underlying this onshore preference, we shouldn’t overemphasize its implications.  We have reason to believe that an improved employment rate will alleviate social pressures for onshore service.  Call it heightened protectionism, patriotism, or nationalism—like coupon clipping, tattoo removal, and eating expired food—it should soon return to pre-recession levels.  And while customers state a clearer preference for onshore service, we haven’t seen precise evidence that offshore interactions, in and of themselves, drive disloyalty.

This all highlights why, when asked for support in helping major corporations think through transitions offshore, we focus so much attention on talent and knowledge management. Now more than ever, reps have to be able to solve issues above all else.  Sure, customers realize they’re speaking to someone with an accent, but don’t give them a reason to leave because of that.

What do you think?  Would you draw the same conclusions from this data? 

CCC members, take a look at our B2B data and B2C data on the offshoring preferences mentioned above.

Comments from the Network (1)

  1. Customer Service Buzz » Frontline Reps: The Next Great Innovators?
    on April 22, 2010

    [...] about the service organization.  No, not about offshoring or outsourcing implications, although Dan has written on that topic recently.  I actually started thinking about times when new ideas come [...]

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