by Marc Anderson

What Wikipedia Can’t Tell You about Foreign Call Centers

Indian men working in call center isolated on white.

History of Foreign Call Centers

Since the 1980s, a number of American companies (retailers, financial institutions, and service organizations) have begun to outsource their call centers to overseas countries.  This is also known as phone sourcing and is popularized by the cost-motivated overseas outsourcing halfway around the world. It typically makes sense from a business perspective to pay a fraction of the cost of an American worker if you can be reasonably certain employees have good English speaking skills and can answer service questions. Having reasonable intelligence and the the ability to use technology are also valuable assets. Usually, there are company savings in health insurance costs, as well.

Job projections for all types of customer service representatives are positive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for customer service agents are growing. Approximately 400,000 new jobs are expected to be created by 2018, an increase of about 18 percent. By the end of this decade, there will be more positions available than job seekers. And this includes customer care positions available at foreign call centers.

About 15% of call center jobs are international opposed to domestic. The majority of these are located in India, the Philippines, Brazil and Spain. New markets are growing, especially in the Middle East. Many companies have a domestic call center and at least one international call center so phones can be staffed 24/7. There is no need to pay overtime and there are no pay differentials for the night shift.

Foreign call centers (or international call centers which they are often called) have an office where the workers have work stations and access to phones and computers. There are one or more supervisor stations.  Routine calls are handled to answer questions from everything ranging from resetting a password to obtaining a bank balance or quoting a product price to more technical questions, business sales or debt collection. Call centers also provide answers by email and through instant message, online chat, and fax. Most customers don’t have any idea that the customer service is being outsourced. The scripts usually are drafted by the hiring firm so you follow that greeting and style. They are meant to standardize the information being provided and discourage long calls. They are also meant to symbolize that particular brand of product and service.

Types of Call Centers – Outbound Call Centers and Inbound Call Centers

collage of people on the phoneAn outbound call center is where you call people, who usually have not been asked to be called. Since you are more than likely interrupting people’s lives at home or at work, many people will not be receptive to your call. They may hang up, express anger at your for calling, and may be downright rude. Typical work involves telemarketing, fundraising or collecting money for various companies and agencies. The average rate of pay is about the minimum range in the U.S. ($6-$8/hour with possible bonuses and commissions). Of the three distinct types of outbound calls (telemarketing, fundraising or collecting money) the collection representatives’ pay is generally the highest, and it has a more realistic chance for commission. For payment in a foreign country, it is best to contact the personnel office at a respective call center.

The inbound call center receives calls. As an agent you usually provide customer service, answer questions and share information with customers, process orders, and close sales. Banks, insurance firms, shipping companies, airlines, utilities, and credit card companies along with many other businesses use call centers in some way to support their customers. You may work for the company directly or you may be hired by a third party to which the main company has outsourced their call center.  One distinction between the outbound call center and the inbound call center is that people want your assistance. In contrast to outbound calls, more customers will be appreciative for your help when they are calling you. The pay is generally more than working in outboard call centers. Often special skills or professional licenses and the ability to speak another language fluently are rewarded with higher pay, too. Bonus opportunities and commissions are often available.

Call center staff are often organized into a multi-tier support system. The goal behind this approach is to be more effective and efficient with the handling of the calls. The operators in the first tier answer the calls and give general information. If more assistance is needed, the call is forwarded to the appropriate department depending on the nature of the call (i.e. the second tier).  The third and subsequent tiers are made up of highly skilled technical support staff and product engineers for that specific product or service. If the operator can’t sufficiently help you in the second tier, you will be referred to a more specialized area.

Working Environment

As you can imagine, there is a high degree of turnover in the outbound calls center jobs. Workers are less-educated than those working with inbound calls. The working environment may be less professional than you are used to. Some workers may grow tired of customer negativity, etc. On the other hand, inbound call centers can be restrictive environments to work in. There may be many rules, limited break times, and close supervision. However the work may be more engaging than outbound work because the calls are more diverse and rewarding as you are helping those that call in.

Training

The training varies but seems to be comprehensive. Some companies offer training and orientation classes that run for several weeks. During the training sessions, there is ample time for simulation-based learning and to apply call center technology and sales, telemarketing and customer service skills. In addition, some companies focus on teaching English proficiency as well as American culture.  Regional dialects, phrases and slang, idioms, and various speech patterns of gender, age and ethnicity are added English skills that training sessions target to gain a broader perspective. By covering the content thoroughly during training sessions the agent builds confidence especially with using the English language and by having adequately trained agents, the agency builds consistent quality service. There are also 1-1 mentors who can help you with areas that might need more attention and to help sustain what has been learned. Mark Brodsky, President and CEO of Ulysses Learning, a global learning and performance improvement company, has focused the past 10 years on helping good contact centers become great contact centers. He feels that proper training goes a long way to “…saving your organization money. It protects your image as well, and according to one company, that is ‘priceless’”. The calls may be monitored for quality control and to help provide a basis for ongoing training.  Most call centers compile electronic reports that outline performance metrics, quarterly highlights, and other information about the calls made and received.

Meeting in a conference hall.

Requirements to Work at a Call Center

The minimum age is 18. Most employees are required to have a high school diploma while some companies prefer some college education. For most, the main requirement is to have strong English language skills (especially listening comprehension and speaking skills), a desire to learn about a company’s products and services, along with good phone manners and patience. If you like helping people out, problem solving, and talking on the phone, this job might be a good fit. And maybe you have prior customer service experience.  This does not have to be restricted to talking on the phone. You might have some retail or restaurant experience, etc. A willingness to understand cultures is also important. In some call centers, newspapers and travel guides written in English are recommended to be read between calls. U.S. news is on the television during work breaks. It is stressed that agents need to be able to converse with customers about the weather, top international stories, and current events if such a topic comes up by the consumer. Computer skills such as an understanding of Microsoft Office, email and chat technologies is important as well as accurate and efficient ability to word process, usually designated at so many words per minute.

There is a relatively high turnover rate at call centers. Agents seem to come and go based on the opportunities they find. The work seems to be purposeful for short-term employment for recent graduates, those in-between jobs, and for people who may have relocated to a new geographical area and do not presently have employment. You learn a lot about dealing with other people, multi-tasking, and it is one way to help improve your overall English language skills.

How to Get a Job at a Call Center

Getting a job in a call center begins with a great resume and a cover letter. You can read suggestions about how to apply for jobs and interview by researching online. It is helpful to research the company to which you are applying so you can be more specific why you want to work for that particular company. It might be their great business reputation, their involvement in the community, etc. Then it is important to mention your strongest qualities as they relate to the job.

At an interview session, you may be asked to take a preliminary test which tests basic reading, language and computer skills. It is quite common for you to be given a set of headphones and a computer to use for typing in what you hear. You will be asked an assortment of questions in a 1-1 or small group interview. Popular questions may include why you want this particular job or what you liked most/or the least about your last job. Try to remain positive. It is helpful to research some additional common interview questions on the internet prior to the actual interview to build your confidence and to have you better prepared. It would also be helpful to role-play an interview with a friend, roommate, or spouse before the interview. Some companies administer personality tests. It is important to tell the truth but watch any extreme answers. Companies look for individuals who follow the rules and complete tasks while working independently.

Then there will be a training session. It is important to take this step seriously. You need to attend every day and to take notes and study.  When you are offered the job, you will need to decide if this type of work is for you. For some people, call center work has provided them an experience to make lasting friendships and to have the opportunity to advance in a variety of positions, all while helping others.

Four candidates competing for one position. Having CV in his hand

Internships and Volunteer Work

You might be able to set up an internship at a call center that will offer you individualized training. If you are presently a student studying ESL or business, an independent study or a class requirement might be able to incorporate an internship or some time spent at a call center. You could also ask to volunteer at a call center. Various non-profit agencies would welcome much needed volunteers. This experience will give you free training and allow you to help others. It will also help you with your ESL skills.

Some Perceived Obstacles of Applying to Work at a Call Center

Q- I am concerned about my accent and if the customer will understand me.

A- Frieda Barry, President and Chairman of the Board at the Call Center Industry Advisory Council (CIAC), does recognize that there are complaints and remarks about foreign call center agents’ accents. However, Barry goes on to say, “It’s been our observation that when the agent creates a connection with a customer, the accent is irrelevant. Regardless of where they are located it is a total non-issue.” Barry goes on to say, “Most agents are smart, and if properly trained and empowered, they can deliver a successful customer experience.”

Q-I feel pretty confident in my English, but what about cultural understanding of the customer?

A-The customers expect an agent to listen with empathy to their situation, to ask thoughtful questions and a sufficient amount of questions to understand the situation, to use an appropriate level of vocabulary, and also to take control of the situation. Often the training sessions will focus on customer service skills and cultural awareness. Cultural awareness takes into account how a country’s cultural differences and the individual agent’s cultural interpretation are important for meeting customer success.

Q- Do the agents get ongoing supervision and monitoring? What is management role in helping with training?

A-There is generally a lower manager to staff ratio for foreign call centers because there is a considerable savings in overall labor costs. While the ratio is 1:20 for manager to staff at domestic call centers, this drops to 1:7 for foreign call centers. Therefore, with extra management on hand, the agents can receive feedback more quickly and the time spent for ongoing supervision and monitoring is increased. This will help agents to improve their performances:  an increase in first call resolution and overall customer satisfaction and a reduction in escalated calls and callbacks.

Overview of Working at a Call Center

This slideshow might be helpful for you to answer further questions regarding working at a call center:

Callcenter Training from vivaankumar

In Summary

Maybe you have always thought of what it would be like to work in a foreign call center. Or maybe you have never dreamed that this would be the job for you. Whatever the case may be, it might be worth it for you to check out the possibilities in your hometown, city or country. With a little Internet research you should be able to find companies that have call centers nearby you or in places that you commute or relocate. And if you meet the requirements listed in this article, working at a foreign call center might be a worthwhile job for you. Along the way, you will improve your interview skills, computer skills, ESL skills, and customer-relation skills… most likely you will make some friends and earn a salary. Maybe it is time to check out this avenue of future work.

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I hope this article was helpful to you in understanding more about foreign call centers. If I can help you further, please let me know. Write to me using the comments section below and tell me your experiences with a call centre.  And if you were inspired to apply for such a job or if you are currently working in a call center, write to me and let me know about that, too.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.

  • Ryan

    Frieda Barry couldn’t be more wrong about the accent. You can’t create connections when the American company forces you to deal with people whom you can’t understand. Wake up!

    • Thanks for the comment Ryan. This is Frieda Barry’s opinion just as much as you have your own opinion. Do you have any relevant studies to back up your claim?

      All the best, Marc

      • Ryan

        I have lots of research. You? Nada.