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India's Call Center Competition in the Caribbean

Corporations are betting that the calm of the Caribbean will spread beyond its sunny beaches and reach into the call centers sprouting up around the islands. The region, along with Latin America, is fast becoming a customer-service hot spot. GE Money, the financial-services arm of General Electric, is using call centers in Barbados and Puerto Rico. Delta Air Lines is sending calls to Jamaica.

The region offers tax breaks from local governments and a talent pool accustomed to dealing with fussy consumers. "Resolving complaints at the front desk of a hotel is very similar to dealing with an angry customer on the phone," says Philip Peters, CEO of Zagada Markets, an outsourcing research firm. According to Peters, the ranks of Caribbean call-center agents have swelled from 11,000 in 2002 to 55,000 in 2007.

Hispanics are boosting demand for bilingual agents, driving companies to Central and South America, too. Dell and Hewlett-Packard, among others, have set up in countries such as Panama and Argentina. "Latin America is the fastest-growing region that we have," says Mark Notarainni, HP's call-center director.

Southwest Passengers Let Off Some Steam

When Southwest Airlines (LUV) rolled out its new business fares and boarding procedures in early November, the carrier's blog quickly became crowded with comments. Nearly 500 impassioned remarks have been posted recently about the changes, which shook up Southwest's longstanding first-come, first-served boarding policy. The old method often meant long waits in line at the gate. The new way assigns passengers a specific place in line and gives priority to frequent travelers and people who pay extra for "business select" fares. Families with small children who don't check in early now wait longer to board.

While many customers applauded the changes, far more were negative. (A Southwest spokesperson says the company is reading every comment and taking note of them.) Although the blog is run by the airline, Southwest's public relations staff takes the unusual step of letting unhappy customers air complaints freely on the site. A sampling:

From Dennis: "YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN WHO BROUGHT YOU TO THE DANCE! Instead, you [got] to the dance, and have decided to ditch your date."

From Jennifer: "To everyone who is SOOOOO happy that families with small children do not get to board first, I will be looking to sit right next to you with my 1 1/2 year old."

And from Mike L.: "Congratulations! If your service deterioriates enough, you might even have a chance to merge with United!"

Your Call May Be Monitored by a PC

Customer-service messages may say, between segments of Muzak, that companies record calls for "quality and training purposes." In reality, they rarely play back all of the calls because it would take armies of workers weeks to listen to them. But companies such as FedEx (FDX), Comcast (CMCSA), and Disney Cruise Lines (DIS) now use software to analyze thousands of hours of conversations in minutes.

Initially, the software—one vendor's was first used by the Israeli military for eavesdropping—could only detect how often customers repeated words such as "damn" or "manager." Newer versions can distinguish between speakers and dissect phrases and their context. For instance, if a cellular provider gets a spike in calls from customers saying "I would like to speak to your supervisor" or "Give me someone else to talk to," the software can examine this "cluster" of calls to determine if service is down in a given area or whether the problem lies simply with an inept agent.

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