Live chat sans frontières?

When I worked for BT a few years ago, they had – after many years of feedback from customers – just brought all their call centres back to the UK. And it wasn’t just us: lots of big businesses went through the same cycle: hire an overseas contact centre, get poor feedback from customers (for lots of different reasons, probably including xenophobia), move it back to the UK.

But with more and more customers using live chat to get their problems solved, the offshore contact centre is back. And that’s unsurprising: according to one outsourcing agency, companies can normally save 25-50% by moving their live chat overseas.

At the same time, more companies are investing in chatbots

‘Humans or robots?’ is another blog for another day, but let’s be real: the big thing humans can do that robots can’t (yet) is show empathy. Answering questions, sympathising with the customer, building rapport – the make or break of a chat conversation with another person is about how good that person is at communicating. So if advisors are going to stay ahead of bots – whether they’re overseas or not – that’s what they need to perfect.

And here’s where it gets tricky. According to Erin Meyer in The Culture Map, ‘good communication’ isn’t one-size-fits-all across the world. Different nations have different styles: how much context you use in conversation, how formally you address people.

It’s all making me wonder: is it possible (and fair) to hire an overseas contact centre, then tell them to ‘sound British’?

How much should you template?

Often, live chat advisors work from big banks of pre-written text – canned responses, if you like. And like a lot of things with live chat, it’s toss-up: on the plus side, you can ready all this stuff in advance, so you’ll know advisors are giving out information that’s correct, and even polished to your brand tone of voice.

But the downsides are deep: relying on banks of canned text breeds a culture of ‘process mode’ with advisors. When a customer pops up on their screen, it’s easy to start thinking ‘what response do I have to roughly fit this question?’ rather than ‘how do I help this customer?’ Obviously, this isn’t specific to working overseas, but it does complicate it.

And besides, recognising a customer’s question and copy-and-pasting the right response from a bank of text? I’m no AI expert, but that seems pretty automatable. A point to the bots?

What do you want your live chat team to do?

Not all customer problems are equal: there’s a big difference in helping someone reset their password and helping them close an account when a loved one has died.

Yes, one is more complex. But it also goes back to empathy: those two tasks call for very different levels of it. And it’s hard enough to show empathy in writing in your own country, culture and language - never mind someone else’s.

And what do you do about the culture gap?

If your aim is for customers not to notice the difference, I’ve got bad news: a live chat with an overseas advisor will almost never feel 100% like a chat with someone in the UK.

Of course, the biggest gap comes if your advisors are speaking and writing in English as their second language. But even where English is widely spoken already, there are still differences. Take India. Indian English isn’t a twin to UK English: more of a cousin. For one thing, they have lots of phrases that won’t be familiar to UK customers: do the needful, please revert. Even sentence construction can change: in India, it’s not unusual to say I can surely help you instead of Sure, I can help you.

And what’s the right approach to these differences? It’s not as simple as just asking advisors to use more UK expressions instead; that would be asking them to undo a lifetime of linguistic patterns. And that’s all before you start thinking about the neo-colonialism of whether you should be telling a group of people to ditch their way of speaking and writing for yours.

So there’s a lot to weigh up

Could the culture gap actually dent the customer experience? Is the price worth the principle? And besides – what are your other options? It’s not like live chat teams in the UK give absolutely perfect experiences every time.

We can’t tell you where to stand on these things, but we’re happy to think it through with you.

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