It doesn’t matter where the call centre is, it’s about service

by , Deputy Money Editor Money 16 July 2011
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There was much rejoicing in certain sections of the media last week when Santander announced its intention to bring all its call centres back to the UK from India. Does a call centre’s location matter to you?

Call centre workers

The bank, which is consistently bottom of our customer satisfaction surveys, said that the switch was all about improving its service.

Santander’s chief executive Ana Botin commented:

‘Improving our service is the top priority… our customers tell us they prefer call centres to be in the UK and not offshore.’

This sudden concern for customer satisfaction is very laudable. And the move is set to create as many as 500 new jobs in Glasgow, Leicester and Liverpool.

The mass homecoming

Santander is not the only corporate giant to move their call centre operations ‘back home’. Two years ago, BT moved 2,000 jobs back to Blighty. Aviva and Powergen have done the same. And last week, New Call Telecom said it was leaving Mumbai to open a call centre in Burnley.

So is customer service the real reason for the repatriation of call centres?

It’s certainly true that the stereotype of linguistic problems and a lack of local knowledge has lodged itself inside the public’s imagination and, in some cases, these have been a real problem. Local knowledge may well be useful for certain industries, such as railways and even some banking services.

However, accents and an in-depth knowledge of ATMs in Altrincham may not be the real reason for the move – it could, in fact, be all about the bottom line.

The bottom line

Wages and costs are rocketing in India with salaries expected to rise 13% this year. The subcontinent is no longer the cheap destination it used to be.

Claudia Hathway, editor of Call Centre Focus, was quoted as saying:

‘Despite the rhetoric of listening to what customers want, rising costs are the true reason for companies coming back onshore.’

Call centre staff are not at the top of most customers’ gripes with banks – poor products with even worse rates take that prize. But if banks are really listening to consumers, then perhaps moving call centres to the UK is a very small step in the right direction.

Or perhaps it’s just a cynical way of cutting costs and maximising PR opportunities. In a truly global industry, does it really matter if your call centre is based in Lahore or Liverpool?

42 comments

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John Ward

In some ways it is immaterial where the call-centre is located so long as the staff can communicate effectively and know their business, which is not always guaranteed in the UK. But since these operations are funded from the payments made by customers for the services provided it is better if the money stays in the UK and goes into the pockets of our own citizens. Much has been made of the language difficulties of Asian call-centre operatives but for most of us that is not a real problem, especially since there are so many regional accents and ethnic languages spoken in this country. Ideally all English-language call-centres would be situated in certain parts of Scotland where perfect pronunciation, good diction and elocution, and excellent enunciation prevail. The most important service the companies behind the call-centres could provide is to staff them adequately. I am fed up with hearing [for over twenty minutes before giving up] “We are experiencing a very high number of calls at the moment . . .” ; this is code for “We do not have enough staff to give a satisfactory service and want to shunt the less-essential calls to a different time or day”. The big energy companies seem to be the worst in this respect.

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bramhall

I so agree with the excellent quality of diction and verbal grammar in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands. How do they manage so well?
I am English from SE England and find the general level of speech here much inferior to Scotland.

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Mr E Rottenberg

All Call centres must be in the UK !!! and staff to communicate effectively and know their business which is ALWAYS not when the call centre is located abroad especially in India etc.
It must be compulsory to inform customers about the call centres.

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James Harrison

It is indeed a real problem when one cannot understand the simple string of ‘English’ words garbled by those from anywhere in the world. India is by far the worst offender, but newcastle, the north-west and Scotland follow closely. Oddly enough, I find the Irish (Eireann) accent the easiest to follow. Maybe their educational principles are better? A poorly-spoken person may easily understand poor and garbled English, but there are a lot of us who do really try to speak and write English as well as possible.

I agree with John’s post above. The real issue for me is that companies shouldn’t be exporting jobs that can be done for a largely similar price in the UK – wages paid in the UK feed back into the UK economy through both tax and domestic spending. This in turn boosts UK business.

As an example, I am a customer of both First Direct and Sainsbury’s Bank. Their call centres in Yorkshire and Scotland respectively feel human and respond to the exact question being posed, rather than a script.

As for James’ comments about regional accents, this has nothing to do with the local accent and more to do with the individual concerned. Most Scottish and northern accents are easy to understand – to suggest that there is a ‘right’ accent in which to speak English is mistaken, and to generalise about regional educational standards is patronising. Yes, I’m from the north (and proud of it) and yes, I can both make myself understood and understand others from various parts of the country. Perhaps misplaced snobbery is a greater hurdle to mutual understanding than the respective individuals’ accents?

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shire of rose

All Call centre should be back to U.K. It is only matter of time, when someone accounts detail is grabbed or leaked by unknown person in that country. It may be cost saving for the companies but for the customers , it is very painful experience for them. This is very highly risky business to keep call centre out of U.K.
Bring them all back to U.K.
Make it compulsory to all companies to inform their customers about where are their call centres so they can switch to other company..

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rarrar

Call centres that do not use a script ( or no apparent one) immediately create the impression that they are listening to your particular needs and will respond accordingly – that is what most people want.

Of course this requires good linguistic skills and it helps if the accent isnt strong. A UK based call centre is probably better positioned to deliver although strong regional accents can be an issue for some customers.

None of this makes much difference though if the organisation doesnt have the systems in place to provide good customer service and resolve problems quickly.

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Sophie Gilbert

I’m ambivalent about this.

One of the best instances of good service I’ve ever had was from somebody in India. Yes, the person’s accent was difficult for me to understand at times, and this wasn’t helped by the poor quality of the telephone line (rather ironic since I was phoning Virgin’s customer service, who supply my landline service), but at the end of the day I was helped very politely, patiently and efficiently. So on the one hand I’d rather be helped well by someone from India than badly by people from round the corner, as I have also had from Virgin’s customer “service”, people who for a start sounded as if they couldn’t care less and subsequently provided nothing that you could remotely call service.

On the other hand I can’t say I’m over happy with seeing people from abroad being employed when there doesn’t appear to be enough jobs to go round in this country.

Interesting dilemma.

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L

I have had help from many people in Indian call centers, but would rather be helped from an English Person and ‘British Taxpayer’ that I can understand!!! Our Economy should come first in such difficult times!!! The Government should give incentives to UK Companies to bring back jobs to the UK and protect our interests before bailing out other countries

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Em

As consumers, we have a right to know where goods originate. We can make an informed choice about whether to buy local produce, support UK or EU companies, or export our wealth to countries like China and India to support their industrial and economic growth. I’m not arguing against free trade, simply that each consumer has the right to choose and can even apply a small measure of economic sanctions according to their political concience.

I don’t understand why services are exempt from this requirement to disclose, particularly as major outgoings such as energy, telecoms and motor insurance are hardly discretionary spends. If I have a pension with a UK insurance company, I can decide how my funds are invested. But I have no right to knowledge or control over where the management chooses to run its operations.

A company’s bland statement that “they intend to keep operations in the UK” is just current policy, with no contractual or legal significance, and hides what may already have been off-shored. In addition to call centres, this can include administration, under the euphamism BPO (business process outsourcing), and IT (computer systems and data), causing the direct loss of many UK job opportunities. It also means your personal data is being exported to areas where there are no criminal sanctions for unauthorised use and disclosure.

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Chris

It’s probably very politically correct to say “the location of the call centre doesn’t matter it’s the sevice that counts”.
However, at the risk of being classed as non-politically correct, I strongly disagree. In fact I never use the services of any company if I find they go for overseas call centres.
My reasons are very simple.
I like to understand the person I’m talking to.
I like the idea that the person I’m talking to might be able to better understand me.
I like the idea of jobs being available in this country to give service to people of this country.
I don’t like the idea of companies maximising profit by paying peanuts to third world employees. That’s hardly “fair trade”, it’s exploitation.
I don’t like for example calling my local bank but finding I’m talking to someone half way around the world, when I really wanted to talk to someone a few miles away at my branch.

To my mind every overseas call centre job is one more unemployed here. If that makes me politically incorrect then guilty as charged.

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richard

The only problem I have with Virgin is their “help line” – Like others I want call centres to employ UK citizens not from abroad.

The Virgin repair service is excellent – but the telephone help-line are script readers – and unless you use Microsoft software they haven’t a clue – even their section leaders are useless and unreliable. But there is no guarantee that a Virgin UK help-line would be any better.

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BobH

A very polite guy in India from BT Broadband technical helpline ‘took over’ my MAC remotely and sorted my problem effortlessly. I think its great fun and had a few words about the weather in Bangalore. Same with an equally polite and efficient woman form Barclaycard in Mumbai.

I dont recall anything but polite efficient service. I can live with an accent that isn’t the same as mine.

A rude person from T Mobile despatching in the UK all but called me a liar when for the second day a delivery failed to arrive despite me staying in all day! But there are lot helpful people in the UK too!

We spend loads on travel to experience different cultures and languages – why not just enjoy the variety we now get from our call centre folk!

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BobH

I can live with an accent that ISNT the same ….

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dean

The problem with some Indian accents is that they are often at the resonant frequency of the phone line. In other words, they can be drowned out by overtones due to the poor quality of the line

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Fat Sam, Glos

Sorry Dean I’ve never heard so much of the smelly brown stuff emitted by male cows in all my life. But thanks for the laugh.

“…often at the resonant frequency of the phone line.”

You couldn’t make up stuff like that. A gem.

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dean

Fat Sam, I actually find your comment insulting, if you can’t argue why you think different other than saying “that’s bs” then why did you comment?

Every room has a resonant frequency, every speaker has a resonant frequency depending on where it is in you room/ear etc. It’s the same with telephones.

Many Indian call centre workers seem to speak in a monotone voice that appears to sit in the frequency range of their room/their phone/my phone making it almost impossible to understand them.

What’s so hard to comprehend about that?

Hello Fat Sam and Dean, thanks for your comments, but please try and be civil. It’s fine to disagree, but stay away from personal insults and instead expand upon your points. Check out our Commenting Guidelines if you’re unsure. Thanks

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fat sam

Dean, I’ll lay an argument for you:

Have you ever considered purchasing a new phone with a different resonant frequency? It may help. Ask Which? to test this particular feature next time.

Just trying to be helpful.

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Kim A

In Psychology, occupational stress is measured by things – control, demand (are you too busy?) and support. Call centre work can provide the perfect storm for stress – no control over your work (often caused micromanagement by the company), high demand (30 minute queues for customers to get through can be incredibly stressful for staff) and support – this depends on how your supervisor and the company treats you.

I did a large study on call centre burnout about 10 years and found that one of the biggest issues in staff just giving up and eventually leaving is this perfect storm, largely becuase of opposing requirements placed on call centre staff.

- work quickly (AHT – average handling time) is calculated to the second, and staff know what their average is… AND add value – staff can have bonuses witheld if they don’t offer additional help to customers.

- read scripts – this can be important where there are Ts and Cs to get across, but at the same time, staff need to make sure the call ‘flows’ and they engage with customers. When this doesn’t happen, customers can become frustrated, and even abusive – the cumulative effect of this means staff feel like they’re playing abuse roulette every time they pick up a call.

I worked in callcentres for about 5 years before doing my research. They started out being very intersted in customer satisfaction, then the legalities of ensuring that incorrect information isn’t given out becomes the focus (which you can understand), but then someone in management worked out that by shortening AHT by 10 seconds, you’ll save £x a year in costs. And so it begins – the squeezing of staff that means that they eventually have to choose between surviving and meeting their targets and actually helping customers – who by this stage are often abusive, whether overtly or through snide comments and disrespectful behaviour.

Call centre staff are the factory workers of our generation – we don’t support them because they aren’t kept in filthy conditions with no light or food. But google cortisol (released when you’re stressed) and you’ll see that call centre workers are very much at risk of a shortened, miserable life.

That said, there are some fantastci call centres out there and I only hope that one day, micromanagemnt will be a thing of the past

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briansg

I am one of those who do not mind where the call centre is, provided I can understand the person at the other end, and he/she can understand me. I have had problems in the past with call centres apparently based on the indian continent, but also recognise that some UK accents can cause me problems (eg a strong Glasgow accent). On one occasion it was very annoying to have to drive to a town I do not normally visit because a building society did not have a local branch, and the person at the ‘indian’ call centre could not not understand my question – the teller in the English branch had no such problem.
I doubt if there is an ideal solution to the problem, it is a question of what proportion of people can successfully converse with call centre staff in any particular location – probably the answer is never 100%.

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Fat Sam, Glos

I think I’m in the larger camp of people who really don’t care where it’s located so long as the service is there.

Regional/national accents exist, always have done, always will do and the day everyone speaks in some refined tone so much the poorer will be humanity. It’s what makes us and the least we could do is just go with it and make the effort to understand. it’s not really that difficult and any excuses not to be able to understand is probably more a reflection of one’s own lack of ability.

Having a call centre in the UK does in no way guarantee high standards if you pay peanuts for a product/service – you get monkeys supporting it. Hence why so many companies go abroad.

So, if you want good standards and be UK-based – expect to pay for it.

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Fat Sam, Glos

I once called Halifax’s contact centre and was just passing conversation by asking how the weather was in India.

‘India?’ they replied, ‘I’m in Leeds.’

If only they could see my face (red).

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Rose

Having worked in financial services for years, including working closely with the onshore & offshore call centre parts of the organisation. I’ve very strong views on this!
With financial services, as a customer I like to know that the person I’m speaking to is UK based and will understand any word or phrase I use in communicating with them. I also want them to know at least as much as I do about the product they’re supposed to be giving me assistance with, rather than me knowing way more than them and (usually) having to tell them what they need to do to resolve my query/problem. As a former employee, I know that many of the offshore call centres end up with UK head office and call centre staff & managers working alongside the offshore call centre (eg many people spending several weeks in India) to try to get them to do the job right, so to me, in real terms the cost is way higher than if it was kept onshore. (I’ve always felt it was driven by the finance directors not the customer service directors, and is all about the balance sheet, not customer service).
With technology (PCs and phones) and things like Paypal and Ebay, as long as I can understand the person, they can understand me, and they can give me a quick answer to my query/problem, I’m happy. Unfortunately, experience has been that it’s still been the UK-based ones that have managed to do that and just occasionally someone offshore (which has been anywhere in the World, not just India). I had a recent experience with a Call Centre in Eire where, much as the 2 people I spoke to were really polite and helpful (and possibly knowledgeable), I just couldn’t hear them properly or understand them as they were so softly spoken with such a “lilt” in their voices that I couldn’t make sense of it.
I know Newcastle & Scottish accents can cause problems for some people too but I’m ok with those and usually find they’re very empathetic, helpful, can deal with you off-script, know what they’re talking about, etc etc so they get my vote over the UK Southern call centres too!

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Russ

Yes it is annoying. because they are unable to understand what you are saying due to different dialects and I have trouble understanding there accents.

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john.mccolgan

“their” accents russ, “their” accents, poor grammar can adversely effect your written work and make it difficult to understand you.

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Ramosa

“Affect”

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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DavidCH Leeds

The most difficult helpline I ever used was BT’s Broadband Help Line from a call centre in India. I found the responding voice difficult to understand, and rather brusque when I asked “please repeat”.
By contrast, UK-based and American call centres are always easy to understand, even when the agent is obviously of Asian extraction. Scottish and Northern English accents work best for me, so when I changed broadband supplier recently, I was pleased to hear a Scot at the end of the line helping me through the set-up. Newcastle accents generally have a pleasing tone, but I wonder how they are received south of Watford? I can’t help thinking “Jasper Carrot” when I hear a Brummie down the line, so dealing with the accent is more of an amusement than an irritation. Having travelled and worked abroad, I experienced a wide variety of foreign accents, so perhaps I’ve learned to be better at listening than some people. If I’m right, people who travel and mix least must have most trouble with non-local accents. Is anyone able to offer any evidence of this?

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Em

How about: “To help us deal with your call, please press 1 for Received Pronunciation, 2 for Estuary English, 3 for Welsh, 4 for Scottish, 5 for Ulster, 6 for … “.

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Nicky

Sigh, my husband just spent a wopping 40 minutes to his bank as the call was directed overseas and you know its just this simple she could not understand him. Very polite etc but score out of 7 if after the call either of us felt happy she really is going to do what she is supposed to- afraid it is a 2. Largely also the data base she is working with was clearly poor-she could not confirm things a branch would have been able to. That did not help. Pleeese can all the UK companies bring their call centres back to the UK-its just that when the person whoever they be dont live in the UK there are soo many things they dont get so you the customer end up paying alot more for the call as you end up on the call longer. I’ve worked in call centres all my working career and I can understand the frustration of anyone when they say about overseas call centres-they just dont work well at all.

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Injury_Claims_

I don’t, rather didn’t care where call centres were, as long as they could communicate effectively and do their job. Understand what the customer was complaining about or wanted sorting.. However, I have been told so many lies by idiots in Indian Call Centres, who just tell you anything to get you off the phone, repeatedly, that I would never use a bank or phone provider, Insurance Co., that had a call centre in India. Purely because they constantly lie! This ends up costing you a fortune in overcharging and fines because they lied to you last time you phoned! Simple! I’ll never use a company with an Indian Call Centre!

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Em

I don’t really see the connection. The companies who run these call centres are responsible for the lies told by their staff. The Indian workers are often poorly paid and told by their supervisors to deal with calls in a particular way. What would you do if that was the only job you could get to support your family?

And who says someone with a British accent is necessarily honest? There have been quite a few convictions for boiler room scams operated by UK nationals recently. These are liars with a sole objective of stealing your money, not just to get you off the phone.

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Charlotte Duffy

Personally I do prefer UK based callcentres for example CallCare. However saying that as long as the call centre staff are professionally trained and can speak fluent English it doesn’t make too much of a difference where they are from. There’s nothing worse than ringing a call centre for much needed help only to find they either have very limited knowledge or you cannot understand them.

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Keith

I have spent hours trying to make my point to and get a sensible response from foreign help centres (mainly Indian or Pakistani). The frustration i have had over the years will make me choose a service (Broadband, Banking, Telephone etc.) based upon where the help/call centre is based. British is a “must” for me.

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Ray Mayhew

I think people are missing the point. If a call centre is based abroad then money that would go to paying uk staff is being paid to foreign staff. This money is not helping the UK economy in any way.
We in the uk should be looking after our own. If 500 jobs are in India and not the UK thats 500 vacancies that do not exist. That’s 500 salaries that are not being pumped into the uk economy. I wonder what would happen if we had a policy of only allowing to outsource jobs if your job was one being lost. I wonder how many decision would be made to outsource, I suspect a lot less. I am adopting a policy of only buying or using products that if possible do not use foreign call staff and making it clear to other organisations why. I urge you to all do the same.

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Ramosa

I’ve just had a long, frustrating series of conversations with Three (I was trying to cancel my contract and get my PAC code), whose call centres are based in India. I then bought a temporary SIM from Tesco, and when I needed to unlock the SIM, I spoke to a person with an English accent. (In fact, I’m 99.9999% sure I spoke to the same guy twice, which is the other problem with many call centres – you speak to a different person each time and have to explain your story all over again). So I may be biased.

To be fair, of course, I don’t know what Tesco’s response would be if I wanted to cancel with them. Realistically, the company’s reaction will be different if you’re extending your contract with them.

Also, to give the last woman I spoke to on Three her due, she was quite polite and helpful, and gave me my PAC when I asked. That’s why I – politely – told her no when she offered me three months’ free service if I stayed with Three. She was obviously just doing what her boss, or her script, told her.

As Chris said above, a major problem I have with outsourcing is that companies pay their overseas employees peanuts.

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Dorrie

I am so tired of ‘phoning my bank (Barclays) and getting through to the call centre in India, the call centre staff do not understand my accent and I do not understand theres. I asked for a certain document to be sent to me and they sent me one that bore no relation to the one I had asked for, I am now considering changing my bank (after about 30 years) but where can I find a bank in this country with their call centre and all dealings done in this country? If anyone knows please let me know.

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DavidCH Leeds

You could do worse than Santander. They seem to have UK operators whenever I call, and the service is good to excellent whenever I contact them. Santander’s 123 current account pays 3% if you have a balance between £3K and £20K, plus cashback on your council, water, gas, electricity, ‘phone and broadband bills.

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ronstar29

I don’t know how long this will last as Royal Bank of Scotland is due to be sold off sometime soon but I changed from Barclays many years ago. One of the real advantages is that I can telephone directly to, not just my bank, but to my branch. And the staff are so pleasant and helpful.

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Mr E Rottenberg

All Call centres must be in the UK !!! and staff to communicate effectively and know their business which is ALWAYS not when the call centre is located abroad especially in India etc.

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Mr E Rottenberg

All Call centres must be in the UK !!! and staff to communicate effectively and know their business which is ALWAYS not when the call centre is located abroad especially in India etc.
It must be compulsory to inform customers about the call centres.

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Claire

How is it that the implication is that you must be rascist if you want to speak to someone in the UK. Companies are taking money from UK residents and they should put back into the economy by employing staff from the UK. I also I have been misinformed by indian call staff more than once. South African call staff are generally lovely, british gas and talk talk use them, and they understand what you are on about and have been unfailingly charming and effective. However, I still think companies should employ UK residents. My heart always sinks when I am connected to an Indian or Phillipines call centre. They are fine for simple questions but anything a bit more complex and its very difficult to get a correct or effective answer. I have on occasion had a very good person but its not usual, its the exception. People from the UK usually know you mean and can answer your questions they may not always be charming but at least they are generally effective and accurate. I have had a very difficult time today with my car insurance company, needless to say after todays wasted time and misinformation which is still not sorted totally, next time renewal time arrives I will be insuring with a company who uses all UK call centres!.

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