Two UK backshoring stories in a week

I had not heard the term “backshoring” until this week, but that is perhaps because it is a relatively new phenomenon. It is the opposite, or, rather, the reverse, of “offshoring”, another of those annoying-but-convenient one-word labels for major shifts in business practice. You can’t backshore until you have offshored and repented of it or, as you would say to the shareholders, “Market conditions have changed and what was the right strategy 12 months ago no longer works for us”.

The context in which it arises now is two stories about UK businesses who moved their call centres to India but who are now moving them back. The expressed reasons are diverse – the one headed New Call Telecom Mumbai call centre moves to Burnley gives various reasons for this retreat: costs are rising in India; employment is high, so employees can move jobs with ease (there are not so many choices in Burnley). The one which appeals to me as a consumer is the comment that the East Lancashire accent is “quite pleasant and easy to understand” so that “the average call handling time in the UK should be reduced because people get their point across on the first pass”.

The norm in the UK is that you can always get through to an English-speaking person if you want to place an order or pay a bill. If you want support or service, however, you get put through, after much diversion and pushing of buttons on a crackly line, to a softly-spoken person whose English runs to reading the generic script. My own “favourite” was the ISP’s man-on-the-spot in Uttar Pradesh who started reading me the default instructions (“Turn off your computer and the router and check all the connections, leave it for 60 seconds….”); it turned out that my whole district’s internet service had failed.

You can to some extent trace the rise and fall of economies by the accents used in call centre operations. The first wave of offshoring was to Scotland (I once caused great offence by asking the operative if there was someone in his north-of-the-border office who spoke English); the next round was to India; the Eastern Europeans added a tone of border-guard suspicion to their inability to understand your questions or frame replies (“Vy are you needing asking me ziz question?”); now much of the inbound calling (that is, people cold-calling to try and rip you off as opposed to call handlers failing to resolve your problems) comes with a Far Eastern accent. The tones of East Lancashire will be a great improvement (and let us here head off the whines from the dimmer end of the Left-Liberal pond by emphasising that it is the ability to speak and understand English which matters, not the race, nationality or colour of the speaker).

It is interesting that Santander is backshoring, though I hope the BBC’s headline Santander to bring India call centres back to UK is not meant literally. The Spanish banking giant, which gobbled up traditional British names such as Abbey National and Bradford & Bingley, has managed to acquire an unequalled reputation first for incompetence and then for bungling the consequent complaint-handling. The complaints seem gradually to be abating, and I imagine that the backshoring is part of Santander’s self-rehabilitation in its customer-facing functions – it is so much easier to deal with a complaint if you can understand what the customer is saying.

How is this relevant to electronic discovery / edisclosure? There was a time when the arguments for offshoring parts of the discovery process to India seemed unanswerable, at least when looked at solely from an economic viewpoint. A great deal of such work is sent to India today, and is presumably done competently and cost-effectively or the business would have withered long ago. Various factors serve as a block, however. UK unemployment is one factor; a mixture of other economic factors is involved; it is possible that new Indian Data Privacy Laws (I am obliged to Mike Taylor of i-Lit Paralegals for this suggestion) are raising new implications.

I think it very likely, however, that our individual and personal experience of dealing with Indian call centres has influenced our willingness to send our clients’ work there. This is almost certainly unfair, not least because the people employed in the better offshore document review centres are highly-educated people hired for their skills and qualifications, and lumping the whole population of the sub-continent together is nonsense. But business decisions are made for many reasons, not all of them logical and few of them fair. No-one who has been routed to India when they queried a bank transaction, sought computer advice or asked about railway timetables is likely to be too receptive to the idea of offshoring client work there. Besides, bringing work to Burnley is itself a good thing.


About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Discovery, eDisclosure, eDiscovery, Electronic disclosure, Litigation Support, Outsourcing. Bookmark the permalink.

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