Asia's Contact Center Boom

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While China stands poised to become an economic superpower, an increased market presence always arrives with greater expectations for contact centers and customer service.

As China’s billion-plus population accrues more spending power, the country’s consumer service providers must differentiate themselves within the call center space. Like their U.S. counterparts, Chinese companies have placed their attention on making extraordinary customer service a means of differentiating their brands and products. In December, two industry giants, IBM and Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, created a joint product to bring their contact center expertise to the country.

IBM Contact Center in a Box combines IBM’s open architecture with Genesys’ call routing and self-service capabilities and Oracle’s Siebel Call Center Applications. The companies are targeting businesses of all sizes, and say their solution is deployable in 90 days or less. This quick turnaround is crucial because in a rapidly growing marketplace enterprises don’t have as much time for testing and tuning cycles.

The Chinese contact center market increases every year. According to a May 2007 Frost & Sullivan report, contact center revenue in China is expected to grow at a rate of 20.9 percent this year.

But according to Paul Greenberg, president of CRM consultancy The 56 Group, China’s companies have developed customer service in ways that U.S. firms have not. "[The Chinese] don’t look at it as customer service as much as they do customer care," he says. "They have strong metrics, but they’re not driven by metrics as much as they are by the idea that the customer needs to be genuinely taken care of. Upsell and cross-sell are not the fundamentals of care in China." Greenberg also notes that Chinese companies view automation not as a substitute for an agent, but as a means of getting to an agent faster.

Of course, China’s businesses can’t ignore that their country’s size and regional differences mean a more complicated, intricate customer base. As Greenberg points out, U.S. companies can outsource to agents in Canada, but a Chinese company cannot outsource part of its contact center to another region with cheaper labor because the cultural differences are just too great.

In India, the same problem exists. Though Internet use is not as prevalent as it is in the U.S. and China, India’s mobile base is growing at astronomical rates, giving users instant access to thousands of companies. But an enormous barrier remains: communicating in a country with customers who speak more than 300 languages. Sunny Rao, Nuance’s general manager for India and Southeast Asia, says each of the country’s 24 states has an official language, forcing contact centers to offer automated speech in a number of choices. Nuance solved the problem by prompting each caller in three different languages: English, the state’s official language, and the language of the neighboring state.

"The biggest achievement for customer care in India will be how to effectively, from a cost and quality perspective, service the larger population that does not speak English," Rao states. And because the country’s contact center employees receive less training, customers will increasingly demand quality IVRs that can do what agents cannot, Rao says.

"If you gave [Indian customers] a fairly well-designed IVR, they were happy," Rao says. "If the IVR was shortened and used speech, they were ecstatic."
In addition to companies like IBM, Genesys, and Nuance, other players in the speech industry have recognized the growing importance of strong IVRs in India and China. One company, telisma, released a version of its teliSpeech Recognizer to work with 10  Indian languages.

While speech technology’s role in Asian contact centers seems solidified, companies must take note of the differences between business operations in non-U.S. countries.

"The Chinese are competing with the West for economic hegemony," Greenberg says. "For [the Chinese] to be effective on global markets, or their own marketplace, they have to have this level of care. The rest of the world is penetrating China, and customers’ expectations are changing."

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