Offshoring has been under fire recently, with complaints focusing on poor customer service. But call centres in India are going to great lengths to iron out the cultural divide. Stephen Bromberg reports from NU's Delhi operation

What does £2,000 buy a global insurer today?If you're Norwich Union (NU) Direct, or one of the many other British insurers whose eyes and finance directors travel east to India, you get one highly motivated, enthusiastic and articulate graduate who will boast to their friends that they work in your call centre.A very different picture from the UK, where NU, among others, finds it difficult to recruit to what many see as 'McJobs', with average salaries of £12,500.Do the maths and it's easy to see why NU customer service director Simon Machell says that locating 1,000 call centre jobs in India wasn't a difficult sell to put before the board."There's continuing pressure on the cost base of all general insurers. We were trying to understand how to manage costs while attracting customers - it's no different from 20, 30, 40 years ago," says Machell, interviewed in NU's new call centre just outside India's capital of New Delhi."It's [offshoring] so that we could offer a lower cost base, price our products better than our competitors and get more customers - a virtuous circle. And give better value to our shareholders. "I'm not ashamed of saying that," says Machell.Aviva, Norwich Union's parent company, believes call centre costs are typically 30%-40% lower in India than the UK and 24-hour working is also much easier.

Customer satisfactionBut, of course, cost is only part of the equation. Customers must also be at the very least satisfied - and ideally actually happy - with the service they receive. The profusion of general home and motor insurers and the explosion of internet and telephone insurance means that it has never been easier for customers or their brokers to change insurers. Machell points out that the move would not make long term financial sense if customer satisfaction was not at the heart of the New Delhi operation. "Making a quick buck and losing customers would have been a disaster," he says.Opponents of offshoring, among them MPs and trade unions, say that difficulties of language and cultural differences between countries like India and the UK can never be fully overcome to give levels of customer service comparable to those in the UK.Even the fact that English is so widely spoken in India - one of the country's most attractive factors for companies like NU - is not entirely straightforward. For middle class Indians, English is the common language. It is the most common way, even 57 years after independence from Britain, that a Gujarati can communicate with a Goan or Karnatikan at the opposite end of the country.But like all other forms of English around the world - in the Caribbean or the US - Indian English has an accent, vocabulary and way of delivery all its own. Call centre staff have intensive lessons in making their pronunciation easier on British ears and also understanding the lexicon and accents of British callers. In subtle ways British English is something of a second language to Indian English speakers.Sanjay Gupta is vice president of client operations for EXL, the international company that runs the call centre for NU. He says that staff undergo a comprehensive 12-week training programme before they speak to any customers and key planks are voice, accent and listening skills."The most important thing for us to do is knock off the MTI, the mother tongue influence. Most North Indians speak English well enough for the UK to understand. All we are required to do from Norwich Union is to speak slowly and clearly. We speak very fast in our mother tongue," says Gupta."All our voice training is outsourced to voice professionals. Many are British nationals."But even Gupta has problems with certain British regions. "I find certain British accents hard to follow - Liverpool, Scottish, Welsh, sometimes even London can be trouble."Gupta can take his pick of eloquent English speaking staff. Paying above the Indian industry standard of around £1,600, he reckons on around 20 applicants for each vacancy. And a salary of £2,000 in a country where street children eke out a miserable existence picking over rubbish dumps for 20 rupees, or 25p, a day is almost beyond the grasp of the bulk of India's one billion inhabitants. But for staff it's not just the money. Working for an overseas call centre carries a high status. The young staff at the centre located in the ominous-sounding Sector 58, Noida are proud to work there. Machell adds that the call centre can command the very best Indian graduates. Alternative careers for many call centre staff would be as doctors or teachers.

Cultural divide The worry customers have, along with language, is being misunderstood. So even if Gupta's thorough training means that staff will understand the words a customer uses, there is a feeling among many that because India is so different from the UK, a call centre operator can't genuinely empathise with a caller's situation.For instance, Gupta says that the style of driving in India is different from the UK. He is being very polite. Driving conditions in India are almost without exception atrocious. On the journey to the Noida call centre, we jostled for position with cows, motorbikes, rusting three-wheeler rickshaw taxis, thundering buses in various states of disrepair, battered Tata cars, limbless beggars and hopelessly overloaded cycles transporting piles of fabric. Although officially traffic drives on the left in India, in reality there's a free for all. Roundabouts can be driven any way you like, there will often be a variety of livestock, camels or occasionally elephants on the road and junctions are a world of their own. Car horns seem to be connected to the accelerator...and the brake...and the clutch.Until you see it for yourself, it's hard to imagine that wandering bulls stop traffic. Can someone growing up in Delhi and seeing Delhi traffic every day really understand why someone is bothered about a knock to the wing mirror on their Ford Fiesta?NU believes they can. Machell says: "It's all about having people that are empathetic to customers' needs. Just because someone comes from a different culture doesn't mean that they are more or less empathetic."And this almost intangible issue of British culture is addressed in a further chunk of training.Gupta explains: "We look at the British, how they talk, walk, what kind of food habits they have, what kind of attire, what kind of countryside, what towns look like. We have pictures, videos, books. We are constantly adding to it."What kind of houses are there, what kind of construction materials, why roofs are slanted [a rare sight in India] and we explain the forms of heating and radiators not used in India. We take them through a bit of history and geography. We use online maps." Gupta also says that many Indians have some understanding of the British way of life, a hangover from colonial days."When I was a child, I read my fair share of Enid Blytons," he says, adding that his children are now enthusiastically consuming the same volumes.As well as the set training, which also covers insurance as an industry and the range of Norwich Union Direct products, staff receive constant updates. In fact, Noida must be one of the few places on Earth where a copy of TV Quick is an educational tool. In the call centre's bright staff coffee bar, where euro pop is piped in and staff relax over a game of pool, copies of Hello, the Daily Mail and British TV guides are liberally sprinkled, presumably so staff can constantly brush up on British celebrities, television and culture.

Airing cupboardsThey also adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances. NU director of offshore operations Sean Egan spends about six months a year overseas. He says that the teething problems - many of them around these cultural differences - have been ironed out. "We learnt a lot very quickly. Things came up like what's a draining board, what's an airing cupboard?" These items are simply not present in Indian homes.Egan adds: "We spent a lot of time on that kind of thing, explaining how people drive, what a post office is - anyone here would wonder what that has to do with driving."Currently, the Noida centre handles some Norwich Union Direct work on motor insurance sales, customer services and welcome procedures. It also handles claims on household policies, including first notification of loss (FNOL), and all of NU Direct's motor claims, other than FNOL, and some non-voice indexing work. Gupta stresses that regulation is identical to that in the UK, and that the centre is measured against Norwich Union Direct's British centres."Agents must comply with certain regulatory requests. These are all listed and passed to us as part of our process arrangements. If I follow the process to the letter, I comply with the regulations. There are very robust audit mechanisms. Our client-vendor relationship demands we must have it."We are benchmarked against the UK call centres. When NU incentivises its own staff to sell products, the same incentives work here."There are periodic customer services surveys, customers are called at random and asked what the experience was like - in terms of comparisons we're right in the middle."NU does not look at this centre as something on the moon, it looks at this as an extension of its own network."

Air conditionedIf you expect some kind of sweatshop at Noida, you'd be very disappointed. Boasting excellent air conditioning in a sweltering 40 degrees, the centre has its own power plant with enough diesel to keep going for 20 days. The operation is entirely insulated from any dips in power output from India's grid, which experiences almost daily power cuts.There is a real buzz among the twenty-somethings working at Noida, dressed in the international causal wear of combats or chinos with polo shirts, passing pictures of British street scenes on the walls, painted in NU Direct's corporate colours.When Insurance Times visited, the centre's cricket team was preparing for the final in a local tournament. Even India's historic defeat of Pakistan in the one day test series, which brought traffic to a standstill across the country, wouldn't have broken the cool professionalism evident throughout the centre.But there are rumblings that many customers of virtually all call centres and customer service centres located offshore are convinced they receive a noticeably worse service.Gupta says that his teams do not use the scripts that seem to be at the heart of the frustrations felt by so many people who deal with call centres. Instead they use a set of questions in a certain order to get the information they need"We tell people to be people," he says. "We never hide the fact we are in India. We ask leading questions. If we do not know the place they are talking about, we ask what the nearest town is. We don't get first calls for motor claims, so don't need to be too geographically precise."But the offshore call centre world is wobbling. Only last month American credit card company Capital One pulled out of an enormous Indian call centre contract with a company called Wipro Spectramind, after staff there were found to be making unauthorised credit offers, gifts and club membership to customers.Machell is certain that NU has dealt with the "cultural difficulties" that affected some operations and for him the barometer of success is clear."Your customers tell you all the time where it's a success or a failure. We sample customers all the time. If we're getting a considerably lower renewal rate of business through India, we'd know."

What's the work like for an Indian call centre operative?Simran Kaur, a 21-year-old commerce graduate, is one of around 1000 young upwardly mobile Indians working Norwich Union Direct's phones at Noida.She told Insurance Times that a post at the Noida call centre was among the most sought after jobs for her circle of graduate friends."I love communication, this is a good work environment and I'm known as an individual here," she says.Kaur's day begins at 2pm local time and she takes her first calls 30 minutes later on the customer services motor retail line. A normal day would see her dealing with 50 calls, on busy days up to 80.Working through till midnight, she is ferried home in one of EXL's 170-strong fleet of cars.On the phones she finds herself acting as an unofficial Indian tourist board. "People ask me when the best time to visit India is. Someone else asked me if we have elephants in our houses!"The call centre walls are dotted with pictures of "ordinary" British life: postmen, street scenes, small towns - as a way of reinforcing the "UK culture" lessons that staff learn."We also have a lot of updates too. One person called me up about the "tube strike", but five minutes earlier someone told me that the "tube" was the Underground."She too struggles with regional accents. "To be honest, when you come to the floor you listen to some accents and it's a bit of a problem, but after a week you're familiar with all of them - and we are having a conversation about insurance."