Back in 2006, I (Rob O'Malley) was asked to be a judge in The Hong Kong Call Centre Association Awards. What I didn't realise before my visit was that many call centres servicing Hong Kong had been outsourced to the Chinese Mainland. So I got my China Visa and went across the border. Here's what I found out.
Sweet and Sour Offshoring (Hong Kong Style)
I was recently given the opportunity to be a judge in The Hong Kong Call Centre Association Awards. Like, the English-speaking world, Hong Kong call-centres are increasingly looking to reduce their costs by offshoring. A number of the centres I was asked to review were actually on The Chinese Mainland and so it gave me an opportunity to see what lessons we could learn from The Hong Kong experience and vice-versa.
It's important to note that there are some natural advantages that China has in conducting work for Hong Kong companies over Indian companies doing the same for British companies. Firstly, the people in Southern China and Hong Kong both speak Cantonese as their first language. Secondly, there is the issue of geography. On a high speed train, it takes only 2 hours to get from Hong Kong to the centres which have been nearshored to Southern China. This has led to a far higher management input than most of the centres which have been off-shored to India and The Philippines.* It felt like the offshore centres were far more involved in the whole of the company rather than something which had been shifted to a remote part of the world. Thirdly, there is not the huge cultural difference that we experience between the UK and India. While there is clearly a cultural difference between Hong Kong and Southern China, everyone I met was able to accurately pinpoint these differences and demonstrate what they are doing to counteract this.
I believe that the main key to the success of the Hong Kong offshoring experience is in their staged approach to the issue. Many British companies experienced initial easy successes with their offshoring pilots but many of their issues arose when they tried to scale up quickly. Many lacked the local middle management and that as they grew and in many cases were no longer able to recruit the same calibre of agents in such great numbers.
The Hong Kong companies have discovered that the middle management skills they need are not currently available in Southern China and almost the entire management teams had been brought in from Hong Kong. In one centre I visited, they had been in operation for three years and had finally promoted one Chinese employee into a middle manager. During these three years, he had undergone extensive training in both Hong Kong and China and was clearly a remarkable employee.
Lack of Outbound
You wouldn't be blamed for thinking that with wages so low in China, Hong Kong consumers would be tempted to inundate people with cold calling. However, not one call centre was conducting or wanted to conduct outbound. There is a view in Hong Kong that the Chinese agents would not be able to sell as effectively to Hong Kong citizens as Hong Kong based agents. This is a view that I subscribe to. If you examine what service culture around the world, there are common traits across all countries. The only difference is that more developed countries expect higher standards of the same service. Sales culture is very different from country to country which explains why British consumers have become so frustrated with poor offshore telemarketing.
The success of The Hong Kong experience has a lot to teach us. Offshoring needs to be carefully implemented and senior management must have a significant input into the culture of the centre. The core of your managers of your call centre should have international call centre experience and give careful consideration to the type of outbound applications you undertake.
But the most common question I have been asked since my return from China is when it will become a major player in the English speaking market. The answer is that it won't for at least a generation. The issues which surround offshoring English speaking work to India such as language, culture and data capture would be far more severe in China.