“Would You Repeat That?” – 5 Communication Challenges For Credit Card Agents

Most credit cardholders know that the credit card industry made a decision to outsource call-in service centers to overseas locations where English is the second or third language. That decision was made to save operational costs on labor. Yet, what is the ongoing impact on North American credit cardholders?This article discusses the five most common communication problems that negatively impact North American credit card customers today as a result of the outsourcing of customer service centers.While these problems could have been predicted had credit card industry decision makers studied the literature on the complexities of language proficiency and culture, they didn’t. Now the industry is grappling with makeshift solutions to extreme customer dissatisfaction.The Customer’s Need – Quick Financial SolutionsIn each of the five examples below, a credit cardholder has called his credit card company, or is responding to a new credit offer, in hopes of finding a financial solution to a financial problem. He may need a new credit card so he can pay medical bills. He may need to get his car fixed so he can get to work. He may need a balance transfer in order to reduce his interest rate and avoid bankruptcy. Yet, whatever his need, it is likely that any problem or delay in getting that financial solution in place will cost him time, frustration and money.Yet, as ubiquitous as credit card transactions have become, their success in providing quick financial solutions for credit cardholders depends upon precise written and oral communication. This includes the accurate keying in of all relevant information and the conveying of accurate interest rates, financial terms and repayment obligations, all of which become part of a legally-binding contract between the credit card customer and the company with which he does business.The Agent’s Job – More Complex Than RealizedThe job of credit card agent is, sometimes, mocked because of the low pay it commands. However, to do the job well requires that an agent be an expert oral communicator with superior reading skills who can answer a customer’s questions while quickly sorting through what is, sometimes, confusing, duplicated or poorly organized on-line information.These complex language skills, however, have been misunderstood, underestimated and undervalued, as illustrated by five common problems that occur when an agent does not have them.The Five Most Common Problems1. Overlooking Account RestrictionsAn agent overlooks a “restriction” on a credit card account and the transaction fails.A restriction is something that prevents or limits the use of a credit card. The most common restriction results from the fact that a credit card has not yet been “activated.” The procedure for activating the card usually requires that the customer call a specific 800 number that is listed on the new card and confirm, through an automated system, that he has received the card.A customer can also place a restriction on a card, such as a dollar amount limit for individual transactions. Yet, sometimes, a customer will opt to put a restriction on his account and then forget that he has done so.It is up to the agent to scan the account for restrictions and make sure there is nothing to prevent the transaction from going through. Yet, noticing the presence of those restrictions requires fast, careful and accurate reading.Overseas agents, more than North American agents, tend to overlook restrictions, such as when a new account has not yet been activated.2. Spelling ErrorsAn agent makes a spelling error in the documentation for the “receiving” account in a balance transfer transaction and it fails to go through.Should the company name or address of the receiving account be misspelled, the transaction will fail. Misspellings most often occur because overseas agents are not familiar with American geography or place names. Common mistakes: “J C Penney” is spelled “J C Penny” or MA is used as the abbreviation for the state of Maine instead of ME.3. Sending Money To An Account That Cannot Receive ItAn inexperienced agent does not know a transaction is not possible.Some bank checking accounts allow direct deposits from credit card companies, others do not. An inexperienced overseas agent, unfamiliar with U.S. banks, often will not have access to this information. He will, subsequently, attempt to send money to a bank account that cannot accept it.4. Misreading An OfferA balance transfer offer is read incorrectly and a customer is either trapped in a high rate or assessed an unexpected feeBased upon his reading of on-screen offer #5, the agent believes that a customer will pay 0% interest on his balance transfer for 12 months if he opts for offer #5, and he tells the customer so. A more accurate reading of the documentation reveals that offer #5 has a provision which will require that customer to pay 18% interest on his balance transfer.While there was a balance transfer offer with an introductory interest rate of 0%, because the information can be poorly laid out, confusing and even duplicated, the agent misreads or misses the fine print and selects the offer with an 18% APR by mistake.Or, the agent chooses the offer that requires an upfront fee for a balance transfer.Or a 3% fee is part of an offer that the customer, inadvertently, chooses because the agent either a) did not read that part, b) read it but did not understand that the customer would be billed a fee, and/or c) did not convey to the customer that the fee was part of the offer.5. Selection Of Wrong On-Screen OfferAn agent selects the wrong on-screen offer by mistake.After reading the terms for a couple of credit card offers to the customer, the agent means to go back and choose the offer that the customer indicated he wanted. However, since the onscreen offers look alike and there can be duplicate offers on-screen, the agent inadvertently chooses the wrong one.A Customer’s NightmareThose within the credit card industry who find themselves trying to help a distressed customer after one of these “deals” has been transacted, and the money moved from lender B to lender A, describe the process as “a nightmare” for the customer, and very difficult for any agent trying to assist him.In most cases there is no remedy for the customer, who can be on the hook to pay money he doesn’t have, yet the customer often spends hours on the phone waiting to speak with agents, explaining his problem, and being transferred from one department to another, day after day, until he gives up.At that point, should the customer be able to pay off or transfer his balances to a different credit card lender and extract himself from the one with which he is now furious, he will take his business elsewhere and never come back.Credit card companies, therefore, are learning a hard lesson in how language works and how important effective communication can be. For the credit cardholder who has been burned, they cannot learn it too fast.What Effective Verbal Communication RequiresEffective communication requires significant give and take between conversing parties. Agents must pick up subtle language cues when they are listening to customers, as customers are not always explicit.For the agent attempting to work in a “second language”, it may take years before he can communicate well enough to be able to recognize those cues. Since language and culture are inextricably bound, some cues may be very difficult to learn without a direct experience of North American culture. However, the subtleties that the agent misses can be vital details in completing financial transactions correctly.It should, therefore, be no surprise that credit card companies receive millions of complaints each year from customers who say they were not able to understand the overseas agents they spoke with and/or that those agents seemed unable to understand them.Companies Experimenting With SolutionsAs a result, those credit card companies that make the most extensive use of offshore outsourced customer service (and some very large credit card companies only use outsourced customer service) are acutely aware of the problem and are currently experimenting with what they hope will be solutions.These experiments include funneling calls into a type of “clearing house,” sorting them according to technical difficulty, and then transferring each customer to a call center that, from past experience, can provide the necessary assistance.However, these experiments will not involve abandoning the outsourced customer service model any time soon. The tens of millions of dollars that credit card companies save by buying offshore service at $4.00 an hour will not be abandoned lightly.Instead, look for more strategies that involve directing balance transfer inquiries away from agents who, potentially, may experience communication difficulties and shifting those inquires toward centers with balance transfer specialists who have “proven ability” in these transactions. These balance transfer specialist centers will, most likely, be in North America.SummaryCustomers are experiencing inconvenience and financial loss due to the overseas outsourcing of credit card service centers. Miscommunication with overseas credit card agents whose first language is not English is a significant problem and negatively impacts financial transactions.The credit card industry is aware of the situation and is searching for solutions that will decrease incidents of miscommunication and increase customer satisfaction. The attempts by different credit card companies to solve this problem are likely to be varied and may have uncertain results.If you are looking to transact a balance transfer, whether on a brand new credit card account or on an existing account, you must be aware of this problem and I suggest you follow the strategies outlined in my article Credit Card Balance Transfers – How To Avoid Disaster.Also, be aware that an ounce of kindness or humility will often be repaid many times over by an agent who will then go out of his way to be helpful. So remain polite and respectful when calling in for assistance. When a tense conversation can be toned down with humor, do so as long as the agent understands you are not making fun of him.My final recommendation is one I’ve made in other articles, however, it deserves repeating.Should you be concerned that you are not being properly understood by the overseas agent who is facilitating your legally-binding balance transfer or other credit card transaction, you can ask to be transferred to a North American agent.However, do not request to be transferred to an agent in the United States because that will exclude Canadian call centers. Yet, in this industry as a whole, the best customer service comes from Canada. Canadian agents have a strong and established reputation for knowledgeable, effective service in the credit card business, so if you can land one to work on your balance transfer, consider yourself lucky.

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