Home > Random > Hello you’re speaking to Samia/Sandra, how can I help you?

Hello you’re speaking to Samia/Sandra, how can I help you?

One thing that I’ve noticed, especially over the past five years or so, has been the shift among UK businesses to move their call centre support from India-based centres to UK-based centres. I think the first one I noticed was RBS (on a poster saying that all their call-centres were based in the UK. Incidentally, they never moved their call centre operations outside of the UK), and now it seems to be a major selling point on the customer-facing point for businesses and actively talked up in all sorts of advertisements (especially banks).

I’m not entirely why there has been such a paradigm shift, but various reports suggest that customer issues with ‘language frustrations’ played a key role in motivating businesses to move their operations back to the UK. In spite of the number of strategies adopted by overseas call centre staff and training centres, including using British first names, learning about television shows and discussing local weather (some of which were famously parodied in the opening sequence of Slumdog Millionaire), customers seem to have associated Indian-English with incompetence, unprofessionalism and frustration (probably quite unfairly I would say, and a paper by Kingsley Bolton explores the issue of proficiency in more detail). The result has been to relocate call-centres back in the UK in an effort to win back customer support and reverse the declining standards of customer satisfaction, consequently stalling the growth of Indian-based call-centres and its associated infrastructure.

What’s especially surprising is that within the Indian call-centre industry, there has been a drive towards developing a ‘neutral-sounding accent’, something which might be labelled as a ‘regionless international variety’ (Claire Cowie has written an interesting paper based on ethnographic research in a Bangalore training centre for call-centre workers about the idea of ‘neutrality’ and how it’s defined by new and experienced call-centre staff). While I would imagine that developing such an accent would likely involve reducing or omitting some of the salient features of IE (including [v] for /w/ and less retroflexed approximants and plosives), I’d question how far a ‘regionless international accent’ is could actually be a real accent.

One thing which is often down-played by these companies, however, is that these relocations (which are dressed up as a way of offering a higher level of customer service), are often motivated by the fact that they are not making the kinds of savings they thought they would through relocating services outside of the UK. In fact, it’s actually costing businesses more to have their call-centres based in India, as the quote from the Independent report mentions:

There are also pressing financial factors. Companies wowed by the potential cost reductions of moving offshore soon found the expense of managing far-flung operations eating into their savings. Costs are also rising as India’s economy continues to rocket, with attrition rates of up to 35 per cent amongst call centre staff and wages set to balloon by 12 per cent this year. New Call Telecom was explicit last week that its decision to re-locate to Burnley came down to price, and it is by no means the only company feeling the squeeze.

So although it’s financial pressures which are forcing the relocation, it’s being repackaged up as an issue of ‘linguistic competence’ which in many ways furthers the kinds of deeply ingrained sociolinguistic stereotypes which surround speakers of Indian-English (and by extension, non-standard speakers of English).

I wonder whether businesses would have made the switch had the savings made from overseas call-centres been at a high enough level, or whether they would have responded to customer feedback and made the switch based on that?

The Social Linguist

  1. a.d.p.h.
    September 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    I completely agree with your conclusion (that it’s entirely economic).

    You haven’t mentioned one of the main reasons for “customers” (of course, not all) wanting UK-based centres. While, for some, there may be a problem relating to intercultural communication, I’d image a large number simply disagree with the concept of “British jobs to non-British workers”. That the Britishness of a company’s operation is a selling-point is potentially problematic.

    That’s not to say that the relocation of call centres from India to the UK is racist or motivated by xenophobia (as you say, it’s almost entirely financial). I just think it’s problematic if part of the decision was motivated by those sorts of thoughts of customers. It also, obviously, has the potential to be seized upon by the right-wing press (perhaps it already has, I haven’t checked) as some sort of moral victory against multiculturalism.

  2. September 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Yes, it kind of is the elephant in the room, but I really wasn’t sure how to bring it up in my discussion!

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