Hate our service? Pay a little more and we'll make it up to you...maybe

Slumdog Millionaire is tipped to be memorialized as Best Picture at the Oscars this Sunday, but customers are hanging up on the world of Indian call centers that it depicts. But report after report show that customers are sick of contending with polite but robotic script-reading phone operators from India, the Philippines, and Mexico.

Companies originally moved their call centers offshore because the practice saved them money -- some 50% to 75% off the price of maintaining them in the United States. But now, they're finding a way to turn our collective distaste for overseas call centers into a new revenue stream. If you don't like Indian call centers, companies are saying, then you can pay more to be guaranteed an American one.

Americans' tolerance for companies' lousy service, and our increasing willingness to pay more to be treated the way we used to be, has not gone unnoticed. The Washington Post calls it the Bangalore Backlash, and its poster child is Dell, which has instituted an optional $12.95 monthly service fee for customers who want to talk to an American. One survey found that customer satisfaction with overseas calling centers was 23% less than satisfaction with American helplines.

Companies are doing it more and more. Take Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, which continues to "test" a $15 fee which gives passengers in the main dining room access to a certain kind of steak normally served in a surcharged dining room. With its own eye on the bottom line, Apple Computer is increasing its call-center presence in India, but then again, it already has a fee-based phone support plan in place for customers who have owned their products for more than three months. Even the TSA permits Clear, a version of security inspection that favors those who shell out extra cash.
Customers despise offshore call centers so much that they'll sometimes just hang up and try for another representative rather than endure them, but if you're willing to part with $13 every month to steer around them, you not only have a lot of problems with your computer (well, it is Dell), but you also must really hate Indians. The Bank of America, for one, responded to that dismal opinion by making its Indian call centers the equivalent of third-string team players, only letting them field overflow calls, easy questions, or calls that come in during the wee hours.

The Buy American movement is one thing. But the option to cut foreign employees out of the process reeks of xenophobia, and it turns customer service into a class concern. If you have the cash for decent treatment, you get it. Otherwise, take a number, Russia-style.

Indian call centers aren't going away. In fact, a newspaper in Bangalore, one of its hubs, reports that the recession is actually driving more companies to cut costs by using them.

The bigger problem is for companies' public image. When Dell asks you to pay more for attentive service or JetBlue charges you more for a more comfortable seat, you can only draw one conclusion: They're admitting their standard product isn't good enough.

Once a company starts saving money by moving its customer service offshore, it's unlikely to move that expense back onto its balance sheet by returning to America. So we get more wallet-bleeding plans like Dell's or Apple's, or companies do what United Airlines did. At the end of February, it will fix its Indian call center problem another way: by firing everyone. From now on, if you have a beef with United, you'll have to write a letter or an e-mail. Either way, customers can't win: Pay more for adequate service or keep your money for nineteenth-century customer support.

Is this what it's come to? Apologists may say that you get what you pay for. But what happens when you get less than what you used to pay for? I know I don't pay less to be a second-class customer. As least, I didn't used to.

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