Everyone seems to have a gripe about call centres, but surprisingly call centres in the insurance sector are beating expectations on level of service

Call centres are irritating. According to a recent survey by the Citizens' Advice Bureau, being kept on hold, automated services and multiple options are some of the many gripes that make callers want to slam the phone down in frustration.

While insurance companies are not the worst offenders - not surprisingly, that was the utility companies - 30% of consumers said they are dissatisfied with the call centres of financial institutions like banks and insurance companies.

But a secret shopping exercise conducted by Insurance Times (see overleaf) showed that things are not as bad as they seem. Twelve brokers and insurers were surveyed and all provided acceptable service. The phone was answered promptly and staff were competent.

Most insurers seem to have done a reasonable job in training their people and, refreshingly, most employees make the best of it.

But there were shortcomings. Many operators rattled through the questions, adding on extra features such as legal expenses, breakdown cover and imposing different excesses. The annual percentage rate for premium finance varied.

Some offered courtesy cars, which are not guaranteed, others offered hire cars, which are.

Fast service

Even so, the findings need to be taken in context. Calls were made to obtain a quote. Claims queries may not have been handled as swiftly. To compare like-with-like would take many hours of poring over policy documents.

Most callers want a fast service. They are unlikely to be interested in the ins and outs of a policy and operators want to close the deal quickly (all seem to be on a bonus system) and move on to the next call.

India call centre staff have been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism in recent months. Castigated for their accents and supposedly required to watch British soaps, the quality of service has been questioned.

But are these criticisms fair? Professor Michael Hulme, chairman of consultancy Teleconomy, has researched the performance of call centre operations in Bangalore.

He found that over a period of three years the perception of Indian call centre performance compared to UK performance has either remained static or declined.

He says: "In general where an Indian accent was clearly determined, the call on average, received a satisfaction rating some 13% worse than that of a non-Indian call in 2001. In 2003 this had widened further to 19%."

Hulme argues that if Indian call centres are to improve the quality of service that they offer they must focus on the quality of English spoken by staff and on general call handling skills.

Staff training

Insurers, not surprisingly, paint a more positive picture. Norwich Union says it takes the training of staff in India very seriously.

A spokesman says: "They have at least three months training before they are on the phone. We don't require them to take English names and they are mentored.

"These are bright people and we ensure it's a good working environment with comparable pay and conditions to our staff in the UK."

NU accepts there has been a "very small minority" of callers who have complained about getting through to an Indian call centre.

"Often it is a perception and we hope they then find that our people, wherever they are, are doing a good job. The reality is it's about control over costs," says the spokesman.

When told that the line to India was terrible in this survey he said: "Occasionally there are problems, but it is something we are always working on."

With Aviva and Royal & SunAlliance announcing more jobs being exported to India, offshoring is clearly not going to go away.