Insurance companies that outsource customer care to third parties within the United States are apprehensive about people finding out customer service calls aren't handled within their own walls.As a result, these insurers typically require vendors to keep their relationships confidential, and they refuse to be interviewed.

Outsourcing calls to a country 10,000 miles away only intensifies the concern with public perception.

Call center quality in India is high, says Bruce Griffin, chairman and CEO of afni Inc., a Bloomington, Ill.-based customer-service outsourcing firm. "The workers in India are very bright, well educated, articulate and caring. And the financial equation is there."

What's missing is "tribal knowledge," he says. For example, agents in call centers in India may not understand the nuances of insurance. "I think it's very hard for them to service a policyholder when they've never experienced having insurance or understanding the insurance system," Griffin says.

To address the cultural and public relations issues, the larger Indian call center operations spend weeks training their agents to speak with "neutralized" American accents.

Indian agents also use American names, watch American sit-coms, and keep abreast of U.S. culture, such as weather reports and baseball scores-to minimize the possibility that U.S. customers will notice they're speaking with someone in another country.

"Accent neutralization training went up tenfold after 9/11," says Cliff Moore, chairman of the Customer Operations Performance Center Inc., an Amherst, N.Y.-based call center consulting and certification firm. "There are a lot of 'red, white and blue' retailers whose phones are being answered (in India). And those companies are frightened to death that their customers will know they're not being serviced by Americans."

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