Why We Are Frustrated By Call Centres

I live in the country that is essentially the Call Centre for Planet Earth. I love the Philippines, I love working with Filipinos and I consider myself to be self-aware and culturally astute. Do I handle call centre frustrations any better than you do? No way! I do understand why they are frustrating, and I am frequently embarrassed by my inability to reconcile my intellectual understanding and my deeply ingrained cultural responses to these frustrations. Culture goes so much deeper than intelligence, and it is our cultural buttons that get pushed by call centre staff.

If, as an Australian, I call another Australian to complain about an issue, we tend to “match” our vocal style. My voice will be slightly raised and firm. My language is clear and direct – I get straight to the point with no ‘fluff’ or small talk.  I follow fundamental rules of politeness but assertion is strong. An Aussie on the receiving end will be equally assertive, clear and direct. Even if they say “I’m sorry for the inconvenience” it will not be delivered in a passive or humble fashion. We leave the conversation feeling like we are on the same wavelength; maybe a resolution was made, maybe we agreed to disagree, maybe the outcome was not satisfactory, but the rhythm and tone of the conversation largely was. If we relay the conversation at a dinner party, it will be about the outcome, not the communication style.

Why is the experience so different when calling an offshore call centre? While we in the West enjoy a ‘matched’ conversation, the Asian culture promotes harmony and balance. This means the louder I speak, the softer they reply. If I become assertive or belligerent, they will respond with passive politeness. And how does this land on us? We become inflamed by the placatory response. We expect assertion, firmness. We expect someone attacked to defend themselves, not to flinch and submit. When faced with increasing passivity, we become increasingly aggressive, and the conversation is not satisfying at all. Instead, we leave it feeling like we have just kicked a puppy. And the only relief for that awful feeling is to share our horrible experiences with our friends about how much we hate dealing with Bombay Bob.

Our other frustration relates to the dreaded “script”. We in the West have a tendency to launch into a conversation without preamble, which causes two problems for a call centre agent. Firstly, they are largely trained by people from their own culture, who believe that politeness is paramount. This means it is considered rude to omit the “how are you today”, “what name would you like me to call you” routine.

Secondly, these agents, whose native tongue is likely not English, talk to people all day with a massive range of accents. Their talent to tune to these accents is lost on us (most of us don’t believe we have an accent) and when we immediately launch into the issue, we don’t give them any time to aurally acclimatise. Can you imagine being a non-native English speaker, taking a call from an Australian, then a Scot, then an American, then a South African, then an Irishman, then a New Zealander? So when I say “Hi this is Michelle, my account number is 1242AQ and I can’t access my account”, we expect the recipient to take in all of this information and respond accordingly. Your average offshore call centre agent was – rightly or wrongly – trained to expect you to say “Hello, how are you today”, so they missed almost all of the issue presented. And, their call is monitored and they are rated on a number of elements, so they feel compelled to get the conversation back onto a familiar path. So they ask their scripted, polite, preamble questions, and ask how they can help, at which point we are completely frustrated because we told them that right at the start.

Offshoring and immigration affect all of us, and are far from the only contexts that we have to relate and work harmoniously with other cultures.

After more than 6 years in the Philippines and India, I have to deal with these issues not only in the call centre context, but in-person scenarios. Addressing a Starbucks server with “Hi, can I have a tall, whole milk latte, take out, name is Michelle” is destined to not end well. I will inevitably be asked as many as five questions – my order, the size, the milk type, the location and my name and the temptation (acted upon, more than once) to respond to each question by repeating the original request ends up with the puppy-kicking feeling, which is dispiriting.

My business is not a call centre, though I do have a few outbound sales staff for existing clients. It’s not my area of expertise and I don’t profess to have all the solutions to the issues we all face. But I do believe that cultural appreciation is increasingly important for all of us, regardless of our field, our jobs, our location. Offshoring and immigration affect all of us, and are far from the only contexts that we have to relate and work harmoniously with other cultures. Finding ways to appreciate the differences, process them on an intellectual level, and adjust my reflexive responses for a more productive outcome is part of my daily life. It may not be part of yours, but it could be.