Friday, June 02, 2006

English as a Second Language: The Trials and Tribulations of Party Poker's India-Based Call-Center Support

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I did a short post mentioning that Party Poker had implemented "CAPTCHA" technology as a way of dealing with poker-playing bots? Somewhere down in the body of that post you'll find that I mentioned sending an e-mail off to the folks at Party, inquiring as to when they put the new addition to their security measures into effect.

I also mentioned that I hadn't received a reply, and news being news... I went ahead and wrote the piece with what I had. It turns out Party actually did respond, some 16 days later, with my original note perhaps being shuffled around to two or three people before I received the response. And what an informative response it was:

Dear Haley,

Halen we have various measure taken to prevents bot usage at our
site.However you due to security concern we would be able to provide you with
any information.

Technical Support Team.

Why, thank you, Riyaz. Even though the information I asked for was only the date of implementation of the measure, which --- since the measure is already known to be in effect -- falls into the area of public knowledge. But no matter. My sending off the original query to Party was an exercise in the dotting of I's and the crossing of T's (lower-case versions, natch), and I wasn't expecting much in the way of useful info from Party.

But the reply was an unexpected bonus in itself, giving me entry into another topic which I've wanted to visit for some time: the India-based call center and support that Party Poker uses to service its predominantly English-speaking customer base. Complaints about Party Poker support are legion, and they are often exacerbated --- if not caused outright --- by the unfamiliarity with English of many of its support-center employees. However, to understand the nature of all this, we need to step away from poker for a few paragraphs and delve into other topics. It's easy enough to find examples of why people hate Party Poker's customer service... just so you have something extra to enjoy. Here's some choice bits:

Poker author Matt Maroon comments...
A miscellaneous thread about encounter non-English-speaking customer service...
Commentary in the post-Empire days...
Another board posting with a fave line: "Their customer service blows chunks."

... and on, and on, and on, ad nauseum...

Most of us understand why companies outsource their support services to countries such as India, where a growing tech-savvy portion of the populace and a cheap working wage forms a combination that always gives corporate CFOs wet dreams. And Lord knows, Party's far from the only company routing its service calls to India. Many companies now use offshore support as the first choice for "non-vital" call-answering services. Here's a personal example:

Due to financial desperation, I spent a couple of months recently answering the phones at the Chicago-area campus of Hewitt, working on their Verizon "team," answering a neverending stream of calls dealing with insurance and retirement benefits. (Shoot me --- after a while I couldn't take it any longer.) Anyhow, retiree benefits are still considered a "vital" service need by Verizon, Coca-Cola, FedEx, UPS and countless other firms, so it's the type of thing that stays in the U.S. However, Hewitt contracts its own behind-the-scenes tech support to its offices in India, meaning that every time my computer crashed, I was on the phone to the techies in Gurgaon, India... even though they were as likely as not to call in someone from the local tech crew to look at my non-working machine.

It didn't matter, you see; the call had to go to Gurgaon first. Such is process, and such is the nature of support-center structure today.

So why does Party Poker use offshore support services to the extent that it does? It's because poker is an entertainment; it can therefore be considered as "non-vital" and be shipped off to the Party equivalent of Gurgaon. From the corporate-spreadsheet viewpoint, it's just that simple.

However, the fact that something is "non-vital" does not mean that the services need to be unsatisfactory, though the fact is, overseas support tends to have a lower satisfaction rate than a similar service based in the U.S., Canada or the U.K. would provide. These things are measurable, too. The bean counters measure everything offering information that indicates relative satisfaction: the length of the calls; the number of repeat calls; the hang-ups and disconnects; the requests to "speak to supervisors;" the number of customers who close their accounts shortly after phone contact... it's all measured, then collected and sorted under the category of "acceptable loss." The cheaper the relative cost of the support services themselves, the greater the acceptable loss is allowed to be. Quite literally, it's accounted for.

So Party Poker not only knows that their customer service is worse when it's shipped to India or a similar locale --- they plan on it.

It's also a fallacy to believe in the adage that "the customer is always right," though Party, again, is hardly alone in this regard. Take this from one who knows: the purpose of an outsourced customer-service department or firm is to listen to the incoming stream of headaches and make those headaches go away in the most economically viable manner. That's the whole game. Right or wrong has nothing to do it; it's simply that in most cases, the most economical solution matches the customer's expectations.

I mentioned that overseas customer-service facilities (based in countries where English is not the primary language) tend to have lower satisfaction rates than those based in the U.S. Do you wonder why this is? After all, modern customer-service practices tend to follow a "flowchart" system, where the problem/concern is identified, then matched against a tree structure of possible solutions until the problem can be identified and resolved. Properly trained (or so goes the argument), it shouldn't matter where the customer service is physically located.

One reason has to do with nuances of language itself. While words have basic, identifiable meanings, the manner and structure in which they are used varies as much as the words themselves, and its much more difficult to learn. It's one of the reasons why learning languages is much more difficult as we grow older; we grow accustomed not only to the words of our language itself, but the subtle manners in which these words are used within our social structures. Now, add in the fact that poker has its own specialized lingo, and a non-English-speaking serviceperson has a steep learning curve indeed. That steep learning curve flies directly in the face of the knowledge that, from the corporate financial standpoint, they are being to paid to do the work on the cheap.

(Funny, there's a commercial for on the tube as I type. Synchronicity? No, just smothering commercial penetration by Party as of late.)

The second reason is the payoff for reading through this piece. You can gather from the above that I didn't care too much for my time working the phones. Let me clue you in: the folks in India hate it, too. Here's a link to a story that appeared oh-so-briefly in Yahoo! News last November. The story highlights the success of One Night at the Call Center, a novel by best-selling Indian author Chetan Bhagat that rocketed to the top of India's book charts. "In a month since its release [], the book has sold more than 100,000 copies -- an impressive feat in a country where 5,000 copies of a book can ensure it a place in the bestsellers' list."

When books sell like that, they're tapping into something in a country's or population's collective consciousness. This is in many ways an anti-American book, a backlash at the "dim-witted Americans" who are the fuel for the success of the India call-center industry. According to the release, "One Night at the Call Center is a fictional account of one eventful night at a call center handling customer queries for a US-based computer and appliances company." But like all good fiction, it's based in reality, and its resonance with frustrated Indian call-answerers is the driving force behind its success.

A few quotes from the news story should give you the appropriate flavor:

"As their night shift begins, Radhika Jha becomes Regina Jones and Esha Singh becomes Eliza Singer to help their customers open their vacuum cleaners and pre-heat their ovens."

"When a customer starts ranting abuse down the phone, he gets a mouthful of invectives back, but only after the phone is put on mute, before the 'agent' starts faking cringing politeness again.

"Meanwhile, an instructor preparing trainees for the job scribbles a golden rule on the blackboard for handling difficult customers: 10=35.

"'Remember, a thirty-five-year-old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian's brain ... Americans are dumb, just accept it. I don't want anyone losing their cool during the calls...' the instructor tells a class."

How much is truth and how much is hyperbole? Bhagat claimed in the story that this was a real instance taken from his six-month research effort, including trips to call centers. "My research showed me that this is what call center instructors teach the trainees," says Bhagat, who has come down hard on outsourcing jobs.

Does this mean that the customer service person that answers the phone when you call up Party Poker thinks that you're a flag-waving, drooling idiot? No, not at all. But you know what? We can't entirely eliminate the possibility, either...

Nor does it explain e-mail responses that border on the incomprehensible. After all, Party Poker is the Wal-Mart of the online poker world. They're big, they're generic, and they're an oh-so-easy target for a little fun.

Fun over. Bye for now.


Lou Krieger said...

Sounds like Party is sharing the Dell Computer customer service team!

BlueFuzion said...

Blah!!!!! UGH!!!! Party Poker customer service can go to hell. I called them once and I couldn't understand a word. I'll never call them again.

Haley (a.k.a. "Cawt") said...

Lol. I don't disagree, blue. The above wasn't an apology on behalf of Party, but rather, an investigation and explanation of -why- Party's service is so-o-o-o bad.

Once the piece grew to gargantuan lengths, I left out my own tale of Party customer service. I might do another post on that someday, but the gist is that in my one extended duel with Party customer service, I managed to outlast one of their service supervisors, to the point where the supervisor finally made three calls back to me before conceding a point and issuing a refund for something which I was due. They tried hard to "make me go away" on that one... but they were unsuccessful.