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In a recent news dispatch, The Telegraph has highlighted one main advantage Filipino call center workers have over their counterparts in other countries: the added value of being able to speak to someone not just in English but in your own language.

In a piece titled “Sarcasm gives call centres in Manila the edge”, a call-center executive in the Philippines claims that British people prefer to speak with a Filipino because of the unaccented English: The brightest graduates from our universities fight to get a job here. We only take the smartest kids. And after we’ve finished training them they even get your British sarcasm.

Accent is the number one reason much of the call center industry has move away from India to the Philippines.
Below are articles that articulate the importance of barrier-free customer service:

“Some customers evidently just don’t like accented speech even when they can understand it.” 
• Accent neutralization in call centers
“Can I switch banks because of a language barrier”

This isn’t just opinion, either. Humans typically distrust accented speech. In a study done by the University of Chicago, the effect of accented speech has a negative impact on the credibility of the accented speaker.
When people listen to accented speech, the difficulty they encounter reduces “processing fluency.” But instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful.

Growing Pains in the Call Center Industry

The accent problem in outsourced call centers has been acknowledged early on in the outsourcing industry. Niel Kjellerup has noted in 2004 the language barrier as a main weakness in the Indian Call Center Industry.

A columnist at USA Today famously described the lack of rapport between a Delta airlines representative named “Kevin” and a customer. A reader contributed this transcribed dialogue:
Me: I want to leave Boston for Cleveland on Friday evening.
Kevin: We have a flight that leaves Boston for Cleveland at 8 am in the morning.
Me: No, I said I need to leave Boston in the evening.
Kevin: We have another flight that leaves Boston for Cleveland at 10:15 in the morning.
Me: No, I said I need to leave Boston in the evening.
Kevin: We have a flight that leaves Boston for Cleveland at 11:30 am in the morning.

Accent Neutralization

Globalised English is neither British nor American. It is the neutral accent that is prized in the outsourcing industry and agents have to learn to “neutralize” their native accents. A 2011 Guardian article describes the efforts undertaken to prepare agents for call-center work:
“Those with extremely good skills don’t want to [work in call centres],” says Kiran Desai, a veteran accent trainer. “What you get is a lot of people who don’t speak very well and aren’t from the best schools in Bombay.”
In the same year, the BBC reported on the Philippines fast growing call center industry (that year, Philippines surpassed India with 350,000 call center agents compared to India’s 330,000). The Philippine’s edge does not end in a neutral accent, however.

It’s not just the clarity of speech that is in the Philippines’ favour. According to Mr Borja, the Philippines “is very much attuned to the US culture. There’s a very strong affinity with everything American.”

It’s All About Customer Service

In the end, the call center industry is about serving customers. While the Philippines has taken the lead in voice, India is fighting back hard. In fact, last year India has taken back businesses from companies like BestBuy.
According to the report, India is competing on its “multichannel” offerings. “The Philippines had an edge in pure voice customer service. But if you have technology-enabled services for customer support, or for services like technology support, for that we see the centre of gravity moving back here.”