Philippine Call Center Ascendancy & 'Accent Neutralization'

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/13/2014 02:00:00 AM
"Shuur, no prob...yeh, got that rite!"
Oy, I was reluctant to say this myself for fear of bias, so it's good to relate the same idea through another source. In the past I've posted about how the Philippines has surpassed India in terms of both call center employees and revenues even if India still retains an advantage in higher value-added business process outsourcing services. Working in a call center isn't exactly considered a glamor job by any stretch of the imagination: You have to work the night shift and field complaints from ornery Americans who can't distinguish a phone socket from a Ethernet socket. That said, starting salaries can be quite high, and pay-for-performance packages quite lucrative.

What is the Philippines' secret of success? Simply put, they can easily pretend to be American over the phone--something which Indians cannot supposedly do as readily. Yesterday being Philippine Independence Day celebrated all over the Internet, it bears remembering that the Yanquis colonized the Philippines in 1898 and stayed there after supposedly "liberating" it during the Spanish-American War, delaying its sovereignty for half a century. It wasn't such a good thing to do for a nation priding itself on not following European imperialism, but hey, it did wonders for preparing Filipino call center workers a century later. Indeed, Filipinos have managed to not only imbibe American pop culture but to be among its architects. Despite making America-bashing a blog pastime, even your humble blogger knows what a "flea flicker pass" is as well as a "4-6-3 double play." Gotta relate to the throngs of US-based readers, see.

Even in the impersonal world of call centers, familiarity with the customer goes a long, long way. Though it's an exceedingly politically incorrect term from a cultural studies perspective, "accent neutralization"--sounding like someone from the United States' Midwest obviously ignores diversity and downplays the fact that English came from, well, England--is now recognized as an advantage:
It’s no secret that Indian call centers have an accent problem. That problem is now proving to be incredibly costly. Accents, according to one of the nation’s top trade associations, are largely to blame for India losing 70 percent of its call center industry to the Philippines. Call centers shifting from India to the Philippines will be responsible for $30 billion in lost foreign exchange earnings this decade.

The head of India’s Associated Chambers of Commerce offers a blunt assessment of his nation’s accent-related woes. “Employees in Philippines call centers speak English fluently with a neutral accent, which is what customers look for and that is something missing in Indian accents,” said D.S. Rawat, the group’s general secretary. “That is a prime reason why [call center] business is thriving in that country.”
Most of the time, Americans don't even know they're speaking to someone from the Philippines:
Americans on the line with one of the Philippines’ rapidly expanding call centers may have no idea they’re connected to a tropical archipelago in Southeast Asia. To the American ear, Filipino speech can sound similar to the Latino accent, a linguistic legacy of three centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines. “Accent is a big part of the story,” said Gillian Virata, senior executive director of the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines, or IBPAP. “We have a ‘neutral’ accent and we don’t speak fast. Some Indians do because their dialect affects the way they speak English.”
Aside from speaking like Americans, making small talk goes a surprisingly long way towards relating to Americans and their idioms. This skill can be traced again to the colonial era and the proliferation of US culture:
The English language proliferated in the Philippines after the US triumphed in the Spanish-American war in 1898 and took the island nation as its spoils. The next five decades of US occupation were characterized by gruesome subjugation but also the rise of a public education system emphasizing English. The outcome: American cultural fingerprints are still easy to see in the modern Philippines. The nation adores basketball and cheeseburgers. Unlike in India, where a call center agent named Vikram may transform into “Victor” when he comes to work, a Filipino is more likely to have a Christianized name familiar to Americans (such as Mark or Maria) in real life.

Many Filipinos are already primed on American pop culture. But call centers try to fill in the gaps. “When I’ve visited call centers, they might have the TV turned to the Rose Bowl,” Virata said. “We’re not very familiar with American football and they need to know what’s exciting the people they’re speaking with.”
Personally, I don't care where the person I'm speaking to comes from as long as the query I have is addressed, hence my reluctance to write this post. That said, racist-protectionist Americans are waking up to the new threat. Whereas India used to be the bogeyman for them, the Philippines is rapidly becoming the new one, especially since most can't tell Filipino call center respondents from American ones. There is the unwarranted assumption that call center workers from abroad are out to defraud Americans in bills proposed regarding "consumer protection."

Just to show you how the "threat" has changed, consider the AFL-CIO's latest salvo in getting such a bill passed as they now fear Philippine, not Indian call centers:
Disclose Call Center Location to U.S. Consumers: It would require the relocated overseas call center agent to disclose their name and physical location of their operation. For example, a customer may hear, "Hello, this is Jane in Manila."
I guess you must be doing something right when racist-protectionists without anything better to do than rent-seek start ganging up on you.