A recent New York Times article points out that the Philippines has passed India in the number of call center agents. Filipino agents, however, are usually paid more than their Indian counterparts. But if outsourcing is all about lowering costs, then why has there been this shift to a higher-priced market?  The answer is quality.

A Brief Lesson in History, Language, and Culture

India in the 1820s was largely under the control of the East India Company, a British trading company that established outposts throughout the country and used its private military to keep order. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857 broke the control of the East India Company, the country came under the British empire until independence in 1947. Hindi is the official language of India (at least of its government). English is often considered the second official language and is used especially in higher technical education. The English spoken in India is British English.

On the other hand, the Philippines was a Spanish colony by 1571. Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898. The country was a commonwealth of the US until July 4, 1946, when it was granted independence. Filipino (Tagalog) and English are both the official languages of the Philippines. The English learned in the Philippines is American English.

The New York Times article elaborates on the differences this way:

It helps that Filipinos learn American English in the first grade, eat hamburgers, follow the N.B.A. and watch the TV show “Friends” long before they enter a call center. In India, by contrast, public schools introduce British English in the third grade, only the urban elite eat American fast food, cricket is the national pastime and “Friends” is a teaching aid for Indian call center trainers. English is an official language in both countries.

Talk to Me

American companies are beginning to understand that having a staffed and available (and cheap) call center isn’t enough. Customers are demanding more than just a live human; they also want one who they can understand. American companies have begun to seek more native American English speakers, either by bringing their call centers back to the US (see the recent post on Prison Contact Centers or by turning to American English speakers overseas. An important measure of quality is transcendent -“I know it when I see it.”  The Filipino agents are generally closer to what callers expect in terms of accent and colloquial language.  The Filipino accent is still distinguishable from an American accent, so it remains to be seen if this trend improves overall customer satisfaction, but in this instance, the market is demanding better quality.