It’s not about your skin colour

its not about your skin colour - image for article by Greg Alder

Bed and breakfast.

Could you spell that, please?



No. B-e-d. D for Duck. Bed.


No! BED and breakfast!

This exchange is from a recent call to an Australian company’s service centre.

Many businesses in countries such as the USA, UK and Australia outsource their telephone support service. The motive isn’t to improve service, but to reduce costs.

Here in Australia, the call centres have been frequently based in India. India is a great country in which to base an English-speaking call centre. Indians speak our language well – better than many Americans, English and Australians do.

The Philippines has recently overtaken India as the call centre capital of the world. Many Filipinos also speak English better than we do.

Especially in India, many of the people manning these call centres are university-educated. They are selected by the call centre operators for their facility with the English language.

The problem illustrated by the conversation above is that whilst they speak English well, they lack comprehension of our familiar cultural phrases.

An Australian knows that the two words, bed and breakfast, go together like, well, bed and breakfast. Like love and marriage. Fred and Ginger. Abbott and Costello.

Even if we didn’t hear the phrase clearly – but heard it clearly enough to recognise ‘and breakfast’ – we’d guess that the first word was bed.

I feel really sorry for Indians and Filipinos in call centres. My experience is that they are extremely polite, helpful, gentle, patient and often well educated. At the other end of a company’s telephone support line, they are subjected to a barrage of expletives from frustrated customers who take their frustration out on them.

These customers grow tired of being misunderstood in phone calls to service centres. With time, they feel resentment not just for the Indians and Filipinos manning call centres, but Indians and Filipinos in general.

Our anger is misdirected. The call centre employees are simply trying to earn an income. Our anger should be directed at the companies that think it’s OK to ill-prepare these foreigners for their call centre duties.

They brief the call centre operators to check that employees speak English well. They don’t check that they understand our cultural idioms.

Service isn’t just about fixing a customer’s problem. Service is about making a customer’s service call a pleasant experience.

This is where companies get it wrong. The best brands understand us. We feel a rapport with our favourite brands. We enjoy each interaction with the brand, whether it happens in a store, online or over the phone.

I have often felt rapport with strangers on the other end of the call centre line. Am I alone? I get to know a little bit about their personalities as we try to solve my issue. In the ten minutes that it might take, I feel that we’ve struck up a friendship. I feel that as humans we would laugh at the same things. I have felt this irrespective of whether the service representative was based in Australia, the USA, India or the Philippines.

They’re the best kind of service calls.

And then there are those occasions when rapport isn’t possible because we just don’t understand each other.

So I’d like to make an apology to those people who will answer my service calls in the future. If I grow frustrated with your inability to understand a phrase that’s common and familiar in my country, if I hang up abruptly, if I raise my voice, it’s not about you. It’s not about your ethnicity. It’s not about your accent. It’s not about your skin colour.

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