MANILA: Americans calling the customer service lines of their airlines, phone companies and banks are now more likely to speak to Mark in Manila than Bharat in Bangalore. Over the last several years, a quiet revolution has been reshaping the call centre business: The rise of the Philippines, a former United States colony that has a large population of young people who speak lightly accented English and, unlike many Indians, are steeped in American culture.
More Filipinos – about 400,000 – than Indians now spend their nights talking to mostly American consumers, industry officials said, as companies like AT&T, JPMorgan Chase and Expedia have hired call centres here, or built their own. The jobs have come from the United States, Europe and, to some extent, India as outsourcers followed their clients to the Philippines.
India, where offshore call centres first took off in a big way, fields as many as 350,000 call centre agents, according to some industry estimates. The Philippines, which has a population one-tenth as big as India’s, overtook India this year, according to Jojo Uligan, executive director of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines.
The growing preference for the Philippines reflects in part the maturation of the outsourcing business and in part a preference for American English. In the early days, the industry focused simply on finding and setting up shop in countries with large English-speaking populations and low labor costs, which mostly led them to India. But executives say they are now increasingly identifying places best suited for specific tasks. India remains the biggest destination by far for software outsourcing, for instance.
Executives say the growth was not motivated by wage considerations. Filipino call centre agents typically earn more than their Indian counterparts ($300 a month, rather than $250, at entry level), but executives say they are worth the extra cost because American customers find them easier to understand than they do Indian agents, who speak British-style English and use unfamiliar idioms. Indians, for example, might say, “I will revert on the same,” rather than, “I will follow up on that.” It helps that Filipinos learn American English in the first grade, eat hamburgers, follow the NBA and watch the TV show “Friends” long before they enter a call centre. In India, public schools introduce British English in the third grade, only the urban elite eat American fast food, cricket is the national pastime and “Friends” is a teaching aid for Indian call centre trainers. English is an official language in both countries.
The Philippines has “a unique combination of Eastern, attentive hospitality and attitude of care and compassion mixed with what I call Americanization,” said Aparup Sengupta, CEO of Aegis Global.