Communication Challenges of Offshoring

Communication Challenges of Offshoring Empathy: The Missing 1% Culture & Communication Skills Consultancy All rights reserved. Printed and bound in the United Kingdom. No part of this paper may be reproduced
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Communication Challenges of Offshoring Empathy: The Missing 1% Culture & Communication Skills Consultancy All rights reserved. Printed and bound in the United Kingdom. No part of this paper may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the authors. The information and advice given in this paper have been provided in good faith. However, the authors and contributors can accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained as a result of information or advice contained in this survey. As the industry is constantly changing, readers are advised to make their own investigations and not rely on the contents of this paper to be totally accurate. By providing this document, Communicaid is not making any representations regarding the correctness or completeness of its contents and reserves the right to alter this document at any time without notice. All marks referenced herein with the or symbol are registered trademarks or trademarks of Communicaid or its subsidiaries. All rights reserved. All other marks are trademarks of their respective owners. 2006/7 Communicaid Group Ltd. All rights reserved. 1 Introduction In recent years much has been achieved in improving the customer service levels provided by offshore contact centres to UK and US customers. It has been a learning curve for many organisations that flocked to countries such as India to set up contact, technical support or sales centres. Upon arrival, they were faced with a unique set of logistical, operational and communication challenges which have had to be solved along the way. At the same time, companies have had to deal with negative press campaigns that have created misconceptions and ill feeling among customers, e.g. recent research published in the The Observer showed that 51% of customers were appalled by contact centres based abroad 1. However, levels of customer satisfaction provided by offshore representatives are actually at an unprecedented high level - often higher than UK/US-based contact centres. So why are customers still not feeling the love? In a business environment where competing products often merge into one indistinguishable mass, the customer experience offers organisations perhaps their only competitive advantage that can be a true differentiator. And, as the industry matures, it is increasingly recognised that key to a successful customer experience are empathy and rapport building skills. This is supported by a recent survey 2, conducted by Communicaid with over 100 companies operating offshore facilities, which concluded that 63% of respondents identified the ability to demonstrate empathy as one of their three most important challenges. Objectives This paper is intended to provide an insight into the discussion of why empathy skills are such a pain point for organisations and examine why there appears to be such a communication gulf between offshore contact centre representatives and their customers. The paper will also describe how offshore operations and their employees can seek to demonstrate greater empathy in order to maximise the customer experience. What is Empathy? One popular definition of empathy is: The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put oneself in another s shoes. 3 In other words, an empathetic response meets four conditions: 1. an awareness of the state of being of another 2. an understanding of the condition 3. a personal identification with the situation 4. an appropriate affective response. 4 Put simply, it is the ability of one individual to understand another by placing themselves hypothetically in their position. In a contact centre context, it presupposes that Indian agents, for example, can relate to and place themselves in the shoes of a British or North American customer and respond appropriately. It is unreasonable to automatically expect this from contact centre agents against the background of differing cultural values between nations, especially in light of the fact that training on this area is often inadequate. Do Indian Contact Centre Agents Lack Empathy? A popular belief in the industry is that Indian nationals actually lack empathy. Weaknesses in this area as reflected in customer surveys and industry customer satisfaction scores indicate an issue with empathy, but is it really a lack of empathy or rather a lack of the necessary tools to engage with customers from a different culture? Throughout the last four years, Communicaid s Offshore team have analysed thousands of hours of customer calls and spent the equivalent of two years onsite in India, the Philippines and other offshore locations. Analysis and subsequent findings have shown that call failure 5 correlates with behaviours that are typically associated in the West with demonstrating a lack of empathy. These behaviours were particularly evident in Indian-located sites 6 : 1 The Observer, 17 September Communicaid Offshore Training Survey, July D. M. Berger (1987). Clinical Empathy. Northvale: Jason Aronson, Inc. 4 Stephen J. Bavolek, Ph.D 5 Deliver below target levels of customer satisfaction 6 In no particular order 2 1. A lack of ownership of a customer s problem 2. Active listening challenges; not listening to what a customer s needs are 3. Not probing to avoid veering from the script 4. A flat and cold vocal cadence monotone and robotic voice 5. Lack of understanding nuances such as sarcasm and wit 6. Over promising and not being able to deliver a solution 7. Overly direct, abrupt and hard selling 8. Asking a customer to spell a common name 9. Over employment of the imperative giving the customer the impression that they are being ordered 10. Pregnant pauses 11. Phrases such as Like I said that give the impression that the customer is being reprimanded for not listening 12. Failure to convey sincerity manifested in a lack of qualifying adverbs such as really, terribly and very when apologising, e.g. I m really sorry The question then becomes how much of these negative behaviours are culturally influenced. How much do our own cultural values affect our perception of these behaviours? Do these behaviours stem from a lack of empathy skills or is it an inability to transfer existing skills to another cultural context? Are these contact centre representatives receiving the training they require to fill these skill gaps? Are they receiving the right support on the operations floor to adapt their behaviour according to their customers? Communicaid s experience in this field indicates that this is a complex issue involving many aspects of the relationship between culture, behaviour and communication. We argue that bringing these together will provide an individual with the necessary skill set to communicate empathetically with their customers. Key Constituents of Empathy The relationship between culture, behaviour and communication could be better defined as: Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Linguistic Competence (LC) Emotional Intelligence What role does Emotional Intelligence play in empathy and rapport building? Over the past 20 years, Emotional Intelligence, or EQ as it more commonly referred to, has been recognized as being an increasingly relevant factor in establishing and sustaining relationships. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ (1995) sites a study of Harvard graduates in the 1940s which found that 20% of social and business success is based on IQ and 80% based on EQ. In the early 1990s, John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey published a series of papers on emotional intelligence. The findings from these papers suggested that the capacity to perceive and understand emotions defines a new variable in personality. Mayer & Salovey organised their model into four areas the capacity to: accurately perceive emotion use emotions to facilitate thinking understand emotional meanings manage emotions These four criteria outline the key skills involved in what it takes to communicate effectively with an individual. Indeed, for business offshoring, this model provides a disconcertingly accurate map to the key challenges confronting their customer-facing personnel as these four areas clearly reflect what contact centre representatives consistently struggle to do. In short, the research conducted by Goleman et al suggests that people who are innately more emotionally intelligent possess the facility of being more empathetic. Their ability to perceive and manage emotions is the key factor to successful relationship building. The challenge then is to develop or improve this intelligence. 3 In the context of offshore contact centres how does EQ, or specifically a lack of EQ, impact on the customer service experience? In the case of Indian contact centre staff a lack of EQ is manifested in: An inability to recognise a customer s emotional state An inability to respond to that emotional state For example, contact centre agents in India are often unable to recognise or respond when a customer expresses frustration in their voice, tone or words. As a result, the customer feels as though their frustration has been ignored and that the urgency of their issue is not shared by the agent. Such exchanges are commonplace and are a major driver behind the frequent complaint that offshore personnel do not listen. In addition, the hiring process in India is restricted and narrow. Recruitment criteria focus solely on academic achievement (almost exclusively graduate level) and testing does not take into account the EQ of a potential recruit. Given the fact that India has a huge pool of graduates, it is understandable that intake almost exclusively depends on reaching an academic standard as opposed to considering the job application of intakes who have high EQ. This is an element that, although now increasingly accepted as important when recruiting in western society, is yet to be embraced within a climate that is regarded as more traditional in its approach to recruitment. Cultural Intelligence Emotional intelligence is just one important element of empathy and rapport building. However, in a cross-cultural context as in the case of Indian contact centre representatives who communicate with people from the UK and US, having a high emotional intelligence in their own culture will not necessarily translate into another culture. Specifically, although a person may be able to perceive and understand emotions of people in their own culture, the signs and behaviours which allow them to do so are often absent in another culture. The person communicating will therefore lose the ability to empathise with those from another culture. This is a primary reason for the perceived lack of empathy of Indian contact centre representatives. To understand how we can use emotional intelligence and develop the ability to empathise in another cultural context, researchers have coined the concept of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) which incorporates the basic elements of emotional intelligence and combines them with additional skills and behaviours. According to Jessica Gregg, P Christopher Earley and Soon Ang who have extensively researched this concept, cultural intelligence refers to a person s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts. 7 Their model of cultural intelligence focuses on three basic elements: Cognition, or the ability to correctly perceive and manage the situation which requires an understanding of the values, attitudes and behaviours common to that culture (also directly related to EQ) Motivation, a level of commitment to interpret the situation and then react Behaviours, the ability to then respond to their understanding of the situation in the most appropriate and effective way Therefore, a person with cultural intelligence would be: open to people of different cultural backgrounds motivated to communicate and learn about people who have different values and attitudes to their own knowledgeable about their specific subject and task able to understand the other person and their situation able to therefore effectively respond and empathise Cultural intelligence, like emotional intelligence, can be learned and developed. Indian contact centre representatives frequently dealing with people from the UK and US can increase their cultural intelligence through a series of training and development programmes, practice, actual experience and support. Linguistic Competence Closely related to these two concepts is yet another which lies at the heart of empathy and rapport building: Linguistic Competence. As we have seen, many calls display a lack of empathy. This often comes down to the fact that a contact centre representative s language contains syntactical and phonetic differences that convey a lack of professionalism and rapport. 7 Gregg et al (2003) Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures 4 This can be manifested in: Grammatical disparities between Indian English and British & American English Flat stress, rhythm and intonation that indicate a lack of interest The wrong and inappropriate use of vocabulary that affect the dynamics of the call FLI (First Language Influence) issues A lack of understanding of a customer s accent A lack of understanding of a customer s vernacular A lack of understanding of a customer s idiomatic language An inability to detect nuances and subtleties of meaning, e.g. sarcasm, irony, wit, etc. We have found that there are significant trust issues which revolve around the mechanics of a contact centre representative s language. Should s/he not have a sufficient level of linguistic competence, then a customer will invariably be taken out of their comfort zone and judge not only the agent s language but their very capacity to do the job. Many verbatim responses cite: a lack of understanding of what I was saying he spoke too quickly I couldn t understand her Equally, and also tellingly, a common observation from customers is that: He sounded really off She sounded rude He was pushy We would suggest that the key word here is not rude but sounded, for this is the key to understanding the empathy issue. Other Challenges In addition to the above issues, we would also suggest that there are other significant and critical factors that have a negative impact in customer interfacing contexts. These include process and training: Operations Managers located offshore often do not perceive empathy to be a major challenge (unlike their Western counterparts who clearly do). Their perceptions are based on customer satisfaction feedback forms which invite customers to give feedback but offer limited categories for them (the customers) to give feedback on. Consequently, feedback data becomes skewed as customers invariably say that the contact centre representative was either not clear or did not speak properly this detracts from the real issues. Ambiguous data has suggested that customers, through no fault of their own, and because of a multitude of reasons (lack of knowledge of linguistic and cultural markers) want to throw feedback into one bucket that can many times stray from the real issue, i.e. a lack of rapport and empathy. Coaches are unable to correctly calibrate calls and thus either misinform or provide no information to contact centre representatives. We have therefore found that opportunities to address the issue of empathy are either missed or treated with less vigour than is necessary. In the case of India contact centres, Indian nationals are training Indian nationals to empathise with and build rapport with British/US customers when often their knowledge of British/US customers, culture and society is wholly inadequate or deficient. Many customers accuse contact centre representatives of sounding scripted. Although this process will also apply to staff at UK and US contact centres, Indian agents do not have the capacity to transfer their skill sets to a UK/US context in terms of EQ, CQ and Linguistic Competence. A significant challenge experienced by offshore sites is the migration of US trained agents to UK programmes and vice versa. This often leads to a disconnect when a UK based customer, for example, is confronted by an agent employing American vernacular and a more direct way of communicating. 5 Is There a Solution? Quite simply, without quality instruction and a robust training programme, many contact centre representatives are moving to the production floor without the necessary skills. This then begs the question can empathy be taught? Although some people naturally have high EQ and CQ, it is encouraging to know that both of these, and hence empathy, can be developed through training. Empathy is a skill, and skills can be taught. Communicaid s team of instructional designers, linguists and intercultural specialists have created instructional material designed to enhance the empathy skills of offshore personnel. This material has had a significant impact manifested in major increases in customer satisfaction scores. Our onsite experience has allowed Communicaid to create a dynamic and effective portfolio of solutions designed to impact on behavioural change and communicative excellence. Conclusion This first of a series of papers has introduced Communicaid s findings through extensive analysis and research. It dispels the myth that Indians lack empathy as is perceived by many British and American customers, but also acknowledges that there is little or no empathetic behaviour exhibited on the majority of calls. It is not so much the fact that Indians lack empathy, but rather that their empathy skills have not been supported by a robust training programme which addresses emotional intelligence as a core component. Customers work best with call centre personnel they perceive are warm and interested in their problem, and who become co-workers in the solution of their problem. Development of call centre personnel s EQ has been sorely lacking from offshore training programmes. In addition, there is a greater challenge of being empathetic when communicating with members of another culture. It is important to remember that the vast majority of contact centre staff would have little or no knowledge of western cultures other than what they have seen on television. This is less than ideal in terms of being able to relate to someone from another culture on the end of a phone. We have also considered that a lack of linguistic competence plays a significant part in the success of a call and that the inability to produce correct and tone-friendly speech can often be perceived by a customer to be terse and unfriendly communication. To summarise, the key to excellence in customer interfacing through empathy involves: Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Linguistic Competence (LC) Future Communicaid white papers will examine in more detail how each of the above can be addressed in the context of overseas contact centres. About the Author Eugene Piccinini Head of Instructional Design NLP Certificate (ABNLP) Advanced Diploma in Language Teaching Management Certificate in Motivational Leadership RSA Certificate in TEFLA Diploma in Business & Finance Eugene joined Communicaid in He possesses almost 20 years training experience delivering culture, empathy and communication skills training in countries as diverse as Japan, India, the Philippines & Spain. Over the last five years, Eugene has been responsible for the development and delivery of Communicaid s offshore Culture and Communication solutions. He has spent thousands of hours onsite in contact, sales and technical support centres across the globe understanding our clients businesses and translating his findings int
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