Fact-Check: Linguistic and Cultural Barriers in BPO Contact Centers

In the first part of our BPO Brass Tacks series, we listed the signs that make you think about outsourcing your customer service tasks. However, many people are still reluctant to outsource their workflow. Part of the reason for this is that there are still some misconceptions about outsourcing or outdated preconceptions often that are not based on personal experience but rather on fictionalized, cinematic representations. However just as it is impossible to have a conversation while skydiving, the frequently asked question - "To outsource or not to outsource?" - cannot be answered by means of vague but usually simplistic statements.

In the next few chapters of our series on the day-to-day running of customer services, we will take a hard look at the big picture. Before preparing the material, we have studied a large number of peer-reviewed articles and publications to gather the most common statements and then nuance and put them in a different light based on our own everyday experience. And while every seller praises his wares, we have tried to approach the subject objectively and dispassionately. Warning, this article may contain traces of virtual three-headed fish and emperor penguins!

On the flip side of the coin

Anyone who has ever asked a BPO services company for a quote will have heard all the benefits of outsourcing: cost-effectiveness, the ability to offer flexible, scalable services, better business continuity, a lot of time and energy saved instead of building, training, and managing your own customer service team, and so on. But what's on the other side of the coin? Or does this other side exist only if we have incomplete information?

We'll start with the most common objection to outsourcing. In my mind's eye I can already see the raised hands in the audience, let's see if we're thinking the same. Linguistic and cultural barriers? Okay, it was a piece of cake, as it's in the title too!

Let's put this statement in a sentence!

"Linguistic and Cultural Barriers can decrease the customer experience provided by BPO contact centers."

The practice in theory

What problems might the above statement indicate? Let's look at some examples!

"If there is no continuous control by the client, communication barriers may arise between the service provider's operators and the customers. If the operators do not have the necessary language skills and are not familiar with the cultural specificities of the country - for example, a European operator may not be familiar with Japanese etiquette, even if they may know the language perfectly - misunderstandings are inevitable. Most customers feel disrespected if they get answers from staff who do not speak their mother tongue perfectly. All these factors can have a negative impact on the customer experience."

The reality of everyday work

If we think in terms of a traditional brick & mortar system, this statement could be true theoretically. However, it is far from the reality of today's modern, decentralized, cloud-integrated BPO businesses. Such companies recruit employees with native language skills and local knowledge in the country they want to serve, who may be able to perform their tasks to a high standard from their own homes. In technical jargon, this is the global talent pool system, which allows the BPO provider to recruit from all over the world.

What are the advantages of a global talent pool?

For the sake of simplicity, we'll point out the areas where today's BPO contact centers have an advantage.

Recruiting internationally, regardless of geographical boundaries, gives the opportunity to all operators who have the right experience, language knowledge, and soft skills, but may live thousands of kilometers away from the company's headquarters.
  • Outsourcing can therefore be a cost-effective way to meet any specific client needs, whereas in a traditional office-based system it is often difficult to find the right person for a job requiring specific skills, especially at short notice. To use an everyday analogy, if you want to catch a three-headed fish, you may have less chance of doing so with the most expensive bait in your local fishing lake than if you were to cast your net virtually in every water area in the world.
Potentially, any language area can be covered by the service provider, even a less widely known version of a language abroad.
  • In China, one and a half billion people speak seven major dialects, but even in Norway, Bokmål and Nynorsk are used varies within the country. Let's play with the idea that when setting up a call center for a company expanding in the Norwegian market, we need to find local staff in a few weeks who not only have a customer service routine but also speak Nynorsk at a native level! Doesn't seem like such an easy task anymore, does it?
Any special language area can be serviced from a third country with the help of a native speaker of the desired language, who may live in another country.
  • One of the blessings of the Internet is that any job that does not require a physical presence - in other words, practically anything that requires computers and software - can now be done remotely if you have the infrastructure. The pandemic, with its many negative effects, has given a further boost to this process, as hybrid or home office working has become much more acceptable, albeit partly out of necessity. Today, no one is bothered by discussing the details of a sales campaign in an online meeting after lead generation. The ability to work from literally anywhere in the world is attractive to many talented, skilled workers because it allows a high degree of personal freedom.

Dirty finances, everyday challenges

In addition to a global talent pool, outsourcing has the advantage of being cost-effective. And knowledge comes at a price. Recruiting locally for operators with native language skills will have a high wage cost for maintaining customer service because what few people know is in higher demand. A decentralized business model allows the operator to adapt to the labor supply and to always look where it can find it. So, if you want to photograph an emperor penguin, it's worth a trip to Antarctica, rather than wandering the streets of your neighborhood during your lunch break to see if you can spot one on a corner. But the best, if you have a colleague in Antarctica and you ask them to take a photo! Let's see what this means in practice!

Good command of the language is only one of the ingredients to be suitable for the job.
  • To ensure maximum customer experience, you also need experienced operators with skills that are essential in the field, such as excellent communication skills, empathy, a problem-solving attitude, and even the ability to tolerate the monotony of repetitive tasks. I mean, the monotony of repetitive tasks. By exploiting the potential of the global talent pool and following the law of large numbers, we are much more likely to find the ideal colleagues internationally.
A consistently high level of service is essential for a professional contact center.
  • In-house contact centers are more vulnerable in this respect: if a member of staff with specific language and professional skills is unable to do their job for whatever reason - unexpected events, illness, resignation, etc. - the factors detailed above make it more difficult to find a colleague who can immediately take over the tasks left vacant. This in turn leads to a decreasing customer experience, as the remaining operators have to do more tasks. They have to handle more contacts, waiting times and stress increase on both sides, just as the extra workload on staff, in addition, the increased waiting time makes customers more impatient - and a grumpy customer with a negative impression is harder to serve.
Even in campaigns that require native language and local knowledge, we often have to deal with extremely fluctuating contact numbers.
  • In fact, it happens that while the customer service phone number rings practically non-stop during peak season, in the off-peak season the cooperation can be "asleep" for months. In such cases, there are several options to choose from in-house.
  1. We have to bear the cost of maintaining a permanent team optimized for the highest number of incoming calls for maximum customer experience, even during the off-peak period, which in turn adds significant extra wage costs to the company.
  2. We can create some hybrid positions to allow colleagues from other areas to be reallocated to customer service, reducing the burden on full-time colleagues. This, in turn, can lead to a loss of focus, as temporary call center staff have less time and energy for their own work.
  3. We have to recruit a new call center team each year, taking the risk that call center colleagues may look for other livelihoods in the off-season. In addition, setting up, training, and managing a new team generates a lot of tasks that are not directly related to our own activities, but are necessary to provide a high level of customer support.

The latter factors, of course, may no longer be due to difficulties caused by language and cultural differences, but rather to the operational issues involved, since customer services, whether working as part of a company or as a stand-alone BPO business, operate just like anything else in the world: each element of the system affects the others.

In the next chapter, we will put another well-known preconception under the microscope: we will examine the veracity of the claim that

"BPO customer service operators often lack expertise and brand knowledge and are therefore not thorough enough in customer support."

Perhaps not surprisingly, we will also have something to say on this topic to see the whole picture in detail!