Culture and rationality: or why South Asian call centres can be so infuriating

By Lorenzo

I recently read Kenneth Pollack’s Ph.D dissertation on The Influence of Arab culture on Arab Military Effectiveness (which later became a book). It is a very fine piece of social science which, alas, I doubt any important member of either the Obama or Bush II Administrations has read. The burden of his analysis is that Arab culture strongly militates against having effective junior offices or tactical flexibility. Arab armies can be stubborn in defence (until breakthroughs happen), and can execute meticulously planned and rehearsed offensives, showing considerable individual bravery and unit cohesion. But they are typically very bad at any sort of free-style manoeuvre, innovation or coping with the unexpected. In particular, information flows can be stunningly unreliable, as people hide failure behind false reports.

iraqi-military-armour-helmet-equipment-left-during-retreat-from-mosul-isis

Providing the Iraqi army with lots of American equipment and training still dramatically failed in the first military test in much the way one might have expected, if anyone in either the Bush II or Obama Administrations had read Pollack’s dissertation. (Particularly the discussion of how the Libyan Army was defeated by Chadian forces.)

I used to describe cultural explanations as the last refuge of the analytically bereft. I am still dubious about cultural explanations which are not properly “fleshed out” but simply “thrown at” analytical problems as sort of analytical “silly putty”–something that can be used to fit any required (analytical) hole. But, as Pollack’s dissertation shows, cultural explanations–done carefully–can be enlightening.

In his conclusion, Pollack makes the following observation:

It is a peculiarly American cultural trait that we dogmatically refuse to accept the importance of culture as an influence on behavior. Only Americans could assume that all men and women are purely rational beings upon whom societal values have only minor influence. For this reason, Americans have tended to dismiss culture as a potential influence on military effectiveness. We assume that any given state will conduct its military operations in exactly the same fashion as we would because we assert that our own behavior–at least in military operations–are governed entirely purely by reason and the objective conditions of our situation, but not by cultural values. As a result, we consistently misread the capabilities and intentions of foreign powers and are baffled when they consistently conduct military operations better, worse, or just different from our own (p.764).

This failure is not so surprising. Those who migrate to the US typically do so to play the game of being American, a game which is open to anyone to play. So, Americans see folk from many different cultures (14% of American residents are foreign born) coming to be Americans and learn to discount culture; or, rather, to expect a generalised “rationality” which cannot see its own emotionality and particularity. (Contemporary scholarship on the history of emotions–Australian centre here–has been revealing how Western post-Enlightenment concepts of rationality are somewhat more emotionally based and culturally particular than is often realised: Hume‘s dictum that reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them has great force.) Australians are perhaps a little more inclined to see differences–if only from an awareness of not being Americans–but some of the same effects apply, as Australia is even more (proportionally, 28% of Australian residents are foreign born) full of people coming to play the game of being Australian.

Cultural exasperations

Which brings me to South Asian call centres. Companies use them because South Asian labour is much cheaper than US, Australian or other Western labour and because modern telecommunication is so cheap, that the saving in labour costs dwarfs the expense in international calls.

call-centre

There are, however, some (inter-related) problems with this. One is that South Asian labour is also less productive than Western labour. Second, the folk in the call centres simply do not have the same life experiences as the Westerners they are dealing with. Third, differences in culture can lead to very unhappy customers. The notion that one just pays South Asians to do “the same job” as would Westerners falls down if, for cultural reasons, they do not see things the same way as their Western customers: i.e. they do not share a common “commercial rationality”. Such as not actually seeing “the job” itself in the same way.

Indian commercial mythologist/chief belief office Devdutt Pattanaik, in the course of a TED talk on culture (transcript here), says of culture that:

Culture is a reaction to nature, and this understanding of our ancestors is transmitted generation from generation in the form of stories, symbols and rituals, which are always indifferent to rationality. And so, when you study it, you realize that different people of the world have a different understanding of the world. Different people see things differently — different viewpoints.

He contrasts one-life cultures with many-life cultures:

Take a look. If you live only once, in one-life cultures around the world, you will see an obsession with binary logic, absolute truth, standardization, absoluteness, linear patterns in design. But if you look at cultures which have cyclical and based on infinite lives, you will see a comfort with fuzzy logic, with opinion, with contextual thinking, with everything is relative, sort of — (Laughter) mostly. (Laughter)

Reading Kenneth Pollack’s dissertation happened to coincide with both my business and a friend having very annoying experience with two Australian telco’s using South Asian call centres.

Telco non-communications

Case 1:

My business is part of a complicated arrangement with Optus. Last year, we moved our office. We have found it is apparently quite difficult to tell modern corporations your business has moved. Which leads to bills not being sent to where they will be paid, so they aren’t. I had got some calls from Optus, and I kept telling them I was not the person to talk to, since I did not handle those aspects of the business. One Monday, my business partner spent two hours on the phone with Optus and was assured, at the end of the conversation, everything was now fixed.

optus-logo

The next day (Tuesday), Optus rang me while I was driving (so I did not pick up). I found later my phone had been cut off. I rang back (on another phone, since my would not connect to Optus), getting a nice lady who could not work out what was the problem, put me on hold and said she would get someone from the Finance area to talk to me: I was on hold for a while (too long, apparently) and dropped into another call centre person, who said the account as fully paid up and re-connected my phone.

The following Monday, Optus rang me while I was driving (so I did not pick up). I found subsequently that my phone had been cut off. I was on the way to a job, so could not deal with it. I got one of my fellow presenters to text my business partner and then, at lunch time, used another presenter’s phone to ring my business partner who was very aware of the problem since his wife’s phone had also been cut off (being part of the same plan), this while deeply personal things were happening and friends needed to be contacted. Our office manager spent a couple of hours on the phone with Optus and was assured at the end of that that everything was fixed. She rang me and told me that if I powered off my phone, it should be fine when I powered it back up. Verily, this was so.

The next day (Tuesday) Optus rang me. For once, I was not driving. We had a pointed discussion about telling them not to ring me and that we had been assured everything was fixed. I gave him my business partner’s phone number, who later texted me back that he had a “pointed discussion” where he was assured everything was fixed (by my count the fourth such assurance in a little over a week) and he assured them that, if there was any recurrence, we were going to the Ombudsman.

So, our experience with a telecommunications company that apparently cannot communicate or handle communication. How much cultural issues played in the recurring screw-up, hard to say.

Case 2

Meanwhile, a friend of mine was moving between states. She rang her telecommunications company, Telstra, to tell them she was moving (and gave them the dates) and enquire about getting internet at her new (non-metropolitan) address. She later found her internet had been cut off (extremely inconvenient given how much information searching, ticket arranging, etc one nowadays does over the net). She rang Telstra and was told that it had been cut off because she was moving. She informed them that yes, but she had given them the dates and still needed internet access. After bouncing around South Asians who were not helpful, she finally got an Australian lady who reconnected her.

telstra-logo1

She subsequently found that, once again, her internet had been cut off. After more bouncing around South Asians at a call centre, where she had to explain the problem, over and over again, she finally got the same Australian lady who expressed puzzlement about what folk (in Telstra) thought they were doing, and reconnected her.  So, in the middle of packing and arranging an inter-state move, she spent hours on the phone simply because her telco couldn’t apparently cope with the idea of moving at a date they had been informed of. Another telecommunications company that apparently cannot handle communication.

But, of course, communication is more difficult when people do not have the same life experiences; not merely individually, but also collectively. (I am guessing that Indians moving probably do not do very much arranging matters over the internet.) What my friend found added an extra level of annoyance was that the call centre folk she talked to did not use the language of responsibility; she got no sense at all that they thought of themselves as representatives or agents of Telstra. She found talking to the Australian lady much more satisfactory, as she used the language of being responsible representative and then acted on the same.

Culture matters

But that is also a matter of life experience and culture; the things that affect the way you see the world and think about it, other people and yourself in relation to same. Devdutt Pattanaik again:

Indian music, for example, does not have the concept of harmony. There is no orchestra conductor. There is one performer standing there, and everybody follows. And you can never replicate that performance twice. It is not about documentation and contract. It’s about conversation and faith. It’s not about compliance. It’s about setting, getting the job done, by bending or breaking the rules — just look at your Indian people around here, you’ll see them smile; they know what it is. (Laughter) And then look at people who have done business in India, you’ll see the exasperation on their faces. (Laughter) (Applause)

Remembering that even the concept of “the job” can be culturally specific. Kenneth Pollack defines culture as:

as the set of learned, shared values, patterns of behavior, and cognitive processes, developed by a community over the course of its history. … it is acquired behavior, learned by members of the community over the course of their lives (p.38).

Culture matters for individual behaviour because:

Culture influences an individual’s preferences and priorities. By defining what the individual is likely to consider important, culture shapes an individual’s preferred outcome in a given situation. … Similarly, culture will shape the courses of action and methods an individual is predisposed to employ to secure a goal. Culture has a tendency to suggest that certain ways of doing things are better than others, thus culture shapes both ends and means. Finally, culture may actually shape the way in which an individual thinks and how he or she approaches different situations.

In addition to its impact on the individual, culture also influences the behavior of groups by shaping interpersonal behavior. It teaches members of a society how to treat other people and how the individual should behave when part of a group. It establishes what is permissible and what is desirable behavior in public or within smaller groups (Pp38-9).

So culture establishes tendencies in behaviour rather than rigidly determining individual actions; tendencies that, as Pollack points out, will be clearer the larger the groups of people, and the longer the time frame, being examined.

Devdutt Pattanaik talks of one-life versus many-life cultures. But one can also talk of limited versus generalised morality, nicely defined by economists Avner Greif and Guido Tabellini as clan versus city (pdf):

In a clan, moral obligations are stronger but are limited in scope, as they apply only toward kin. In a city, moral obligations are generalized towards all citizens irrespective of lineage, but they are weaker, as identification is more difficult in a larger and more heterogeneous group.

Christianity and Buddhism encourage generalised morality, Confucianism and Hinduism encourage limited morality. Islam is a limited morality with universalised ambit. What folk in the West think of as “common sense” rests to a significant degree on generalised morality and putting yourself in the other person’s situation. Limited morality cultures tend to not have the same “common sense”.

culture-language-influence-UX

A way to think about culture is a set of economising heuristics where the alignment of one’s perspectives, expectations and preferences with those of others decreases cognitive effort and reduces social friction (i.e. transaction costs). The more said heuristics align with social success (marriage, income, reputation; i.e. have strategic complementarity [pdf]) the more they will be reinforced, and so persevere.

Conversely, persistent and socially significant shifts in pay-offs will lead cultures to change (as they do).

So, you hire folk who continue to live in their culture to deal with practical and personal aspects of people’s lives who live in a quite different culture with quite different collective life experiences. How is that going to work out, in the customer satisfaction stakes?

Helping to create telecommunication companies that handle communication really quite badly, apparently.

 

 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

4 Comments

  1. Hasbeen
    Posted December 15, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Just so true. I have been promised the world by Indian call enters, but it has never arrived. As a side note, you should try dealing with some overseas call centres, & the operatives accents when you have tinnitus.

    I changed my mobile provider because of frustration with an Indian call centre, I changed my landline after difficulty with a Philippine call centre. All my communication services are now with a Western Australian company who does not have an offshore call centre.

    It gets worse. I was a member of the Shell racing team for some years, & had been perhaps rather foolishly loyal to them since. I would call their technical call centre for advice on which products to use, or information on how best to use them.

    Then they moved their call centre off shore. After quite some time, trying to find out how to now contact their technical people, over a few days, I now use the products of a different oil company.

    I wonder how effective the savings are. Call centres are part of a companies marketing effort. How many are like me. Today I immediately change suppliers, the moment I find an overseas call centre. Surely keeping clients is more important than the savings involved. Call centre costs will be very low for companies with few clients.

    It is telling that I have not found a company who has off shored their sales call centre.

  2. kvd
    Posted December 18, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr Thodey and Ms Livingstone

    This letter is written by one of your loyal customers to make you aware of problems I have encountered with XXXX. I accept you might not have either time or patience for this – but then neither do I.

    Lorenzo, while I sympathise, I’m wondering why you, as a busy small business person, wouldn’t simply bypass the call centres – and go to the top?

    The above is the first para of an email I wrote to the people named at about 5.30 p.m., after six months of frustration, and a ‘final offer’ (“confidential, without prejudice”, and “you have until Monday, 5 p.m. to accept”) of $200 off a $4800 contract.

    The response (10.30 a.m. next day from a very polite personal assistant) was rapid and quite unsurprising – but then I honestly believe I had quite a firm grounding for my complaint, and I honestly believe large telcos want to do the right thing – but need to be told at an appropriate level.

    So, if you are happy to use your waiting-on-hold time to develop theories about culture is a set of economising heuristics where the alignment of one’s perspectives, expectations and preferences with those of others decreases cognitive effort and reduces social friction then good for you. But I honestly haven’t the time.

    Me, now when I get the endless call centre calls which always start with “how are you today?” I thank them for asking, and then hang up.

  3. Herding cats
    Posted December 23, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    ‘allo, ‘allo. Good morning sir. ‘ow ar you today? Thank yoo for listnig. we know yoo are in southern henisfere but wood only like say yoo Verry Merry Fesitve season, sir, thank you.

  4. peter piper
    Posted March 30, 2015 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I have stayed with ‘Internode’ for these exact reasons..the call centres are alsways answered by Aussies, and technical problems sorted out there and then.

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