How Telstra's 'Gay Marriage' Snafu Was Made Worse By Offshore Customer Service

Telstra has had a rough week. First, the company pulled back its support for same sex-marriage after pressure from the Catholic Church; one of its biggest clients. Then, a Telstra customer service representative identified homosexuality as an "ideology" and not a sexuality during online correspondence with a customer. It wasn’t the best choice of words, but it’s likely the Telstra representative did not understand the sensitivity of the issue at hand because he worked in an overseas call centre. Simply put, there are some things you can't train for.

Call centre image from Shutterstock

Morgan Archer was mad. After hearing Telstra was withdrawing overt support for gay marriage, something that affects him directly, he contacted the company’s customer service team to cancel his services with the telco. But then, this happened:

In attempting to deal politely with a customer, Telstra seemingly dug itself into an even bigger hole.

Same-sex marriage is a polarising topic in Australia and is an impetus for many heated discussions and verbal vitriol. But in other parts of the world, it’s not a national discussion. Hell, same-sex relations is still illegal in a number of countries. Such is the case in India and Bangladesh, where many outsourced call centre are located. Philippines is also a popular country for call centre outsourcing work, and while it is a gay-friendly country, same-sex relations are opposed by the Catholic Church, which maintains a strong influence in the region.

Given Telstra's penchant for outsourcing its call centre jobs, it's likely the representative who responded to Mr Archer's enquiry was from overseas.

We’re not here to have a discussion about politics and religion. On a very basic level, the folks from these countries that do get call centre work from Australia probably don’t speak English as their first language and are probably not tuning into our local news and therefore unaware of the controversial topics dominating our public discourse.

Combining those two factors, I feel sorry for the chumps currently being flooded with complains from furious Telstra customers who are livid with the company’s stance on gay marriage. All they can do is respond politely but, as shown in the example above, even that can be a dangerous path that is littered with landmines.

You can give foreign call centre workers a crash course on how to speak Australian, but to demand that they be sensitive to the issues that make us tick and to know how to craft perfectly-worded responses to issues blowing up in a country far away is just asking for too much.

We may take it for granted, but the nuances in language is rarely something that can be taught outright. This whole debacle with Telstra's customer service reminds me of the parody online series How To Speak Australian (Warning: The video contains a lot of crude language. You have been warned.)

I'm sure call centre workers would have been educated in some parts of the Australian vernacular but they can't be expected to know all the subtleties of the English language. Doubtlessly, Pol Draneb thought his choice of words was perfectly empathetic.

That's the reality of outsourcing your customer service to an overseas country. Yes, it is a heck of a lot cheaper to outsource this function and its only responsible for companies to lower their operational expense to ensure they can be profitable businesses. I don't fault them for outsourcing. But they do need to consider the trade-off.

In the words of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI):

"The downside of using [outsourced call centres] is that of risking your brand integrity. A third party workforce can seldom match the expectations in communicating your brand, because they don’t understand, and live and breathe your organisation’s mission and values in the same way as someone on the inside. Also, there can be gaps and challenges in passing along new technical and product information. In short, the personal touch may not always be present when customer service is outsourced."

For some organisations, that's not an issue. For Telstra, which has struggled to sustain a positive brand image (a problem that has been exacerbated by a recent spat of bad press), it might want to reconsider whether it's worth bringing more of its customer service operations back in-house to salvage.

It may be a move that could help salvage its reputation and avoid future embarrassment.


    I agree and disagree. Current events etc are hard to keep track of but larger topics should be covered. They are as far as the customer is concerned the face and voice of the company it is quite an important role and for some people the call centre is the only person to person contact they ever have with Telstra. The call centre respondents slip of the tongue turned it from a bad interpretation into basically an insult.
    I see this as largely a training issue with telstra at fault. They offload work to the lowest bidder but are not following on with quality monitoring. If these people were trained with the nuances of our language and even general locality training about our culture and way off life this could have been avoided. They after all essentially work in Australia and one could say you require adequate knowledge about where you work to be able to perform your duties correctly. Ahh but that costs money.

    Last edited 14/04/16 11:48 am

      Good points. However, it's essentially impossible to adequately train offshore workers for every conceivable scenario. Telstra didn't instruct staff how to respond to complaints relating to its stance on gay marriage, because it was never an issue until now.

      There would have been zero time to provide crash-course training either -- customers were complaining to Telstra within minutes of the story appearing online.

        The whole gay marriage thing has been a topic for years now. Yes telstra's move only happened hours earlier. The centre worker would have been caught completely off guard. But it isn't quite a new topic.
        I don't personally, but I have a friend who regularly communicates with foreign companies/customers and they have routine cultural sensitivity training. What to say and what not to pretty much. As the equality debate has been raging for quite some time it could have been squeezed in, though Indian record for equality is hardly top notch so they could even be hesitant to do it in the first place.

        If I was to operate a business off shore I would be required to learn language, customs and culture to offer the best customer experience. I don't see a call centre being any different.

        Edit: I do think I am straying off the topic here.

        Last edited 14/04/16 1:28 pm

    The customer complained because he believes in the right of gay marriage.
    Beliefs which guide action are part of your ideology by definition.

    The Telstra rep was utterly right, and the customer utterly wrong.

      I agree. It's harsh but true. Marriage is a human construct, therefore any interpretation of it is an ideology. The idea that marriage be limited to couples of opposite sex is also an ideology.

      But I also think Telstra are being weak. Or potentially they're being 'normal' in that they're just retracting the previously opportunistic stance. They're trying to have it both ways. Classic Telstra.

      Usually political or economic beliefs as opposed to beliefs in social constructs such as equality.
      Ideology is a great word because almost every dictionary and even in common usage it has a slightly varied meaning. Hence why misinterpreting it's use can completely change its meaning. Before you run off back to your dictionary remember language is ever evolving and changing. What's written in there may not be its meaning in common usage today.

        If I entertain your view that the definition is really as open to interpretation as you claim, that simply means the customer is even more wrong!

          Or you could just get me this world dictionary that you use. Oh wait there's no such thing there's just different one for different regions across the world. That should still be easy though get the one mainly used for aus and it'll be OK. It's not like we associate, intergrate or heaven forbid watch media from countries that have a different interpretation to us. So of course it is purely black and white how we communicate.

          I don't care who's wrong that was something I never brought up.

          Well the customer is definitely not 'gay' then is he?

      I hadn't thought about it like that - you are correct.

    It wasn’t the best choice of words.
    First, the company "winded" back its support .

    It certainly wasnt the best choice of words.

      Sorry about that. My oversight. Have fixed it now :)

    I'd like to see the rest of the chat dialogue. Why was Morgan Archer raising gay marriage in what I infer to be a query regarding his phone contract conditions to customer support? I don't demand Dominoes supports gay marriage when I call for a pizza. I feel sorry for Pol Dranreb being abused and sworn at by some Aussie moron when he's just trying to do his job. Archer is a disgrace.

      I'd say he contacted them to cancel his contract after Telstra 'canceled' their public support of marriage equality. I've seen a lot of people on Facebook say that they have done / are doing the same thing.

        So basically he employed the same tactics as the Catholic Church. Yet somehow what isn't okay for the Catholic Church to do is okay for him?

        Seems to me that if you're opposed to customers bullying companies into supporting their political agenda then the appropriate response to this story is to do nothing.

          The Church's letter was leaked, I know it's content. It was a business letter outlining commercial matters to be considered by another business, I didn't see it saying 'f..k you' to anybody, which is what Morgan Archer said to some ordinary guy just doing his job. You are drawing a moral equivalence between the two when non exists. Archer is a bully. And where did I mention the Catholic church anyway? I said nothing about them, your comment is irrelevant to my original point by introducing the Church when I made no mention of them. Lack of logical argument and clear thinking is par for the course now on comments sections as evidenced by you.

            And where did I mention the Catholic church anyway? I said nothing about them, your comment is irrelevant to my original point by introducing the Church when I made no mention of them.

            I wasn't responding to you. I was responding to April... who responded to you... But considering Morgan Archer was raising this issue because of actions taken by the Catholic church, it would seem logical to evaluate the church's action against his own... wouldn't it?

            I don't know so please correct me if I'm wrong, oh wise one.

            Lack of logical argument and clear thinking is par for the course now on comments sections as evidenced by you.

            Oh boy ain't that the truth. You don't even have the logical reasoning or clarity of thought to distinguish between someone who's agreeing with you and someone who's not.

    The buck stops with Telstra here. Their customer service is utterly disgraceful at the best of times, they're opting for the cheapest and nastiest option there, while charging a premium for their products, if that's the way they're going to treat their customers, they get no sympathy from me when it comes back and bites them in the ass.

    I assumed the customer was gay based on the comment about it being his life further on in the conversation. Regardless as a gay man myself I find wanting equal rights being labelled an ideology to be demeaning.

      You find labelling the ideology of equal rights as ideology demeaning? Okay. What should ideas be called, if not ideas?

      Wanting equal rights is part of your ideology.

      Your ideology is simply the set of beliefs which inform your actions.
      Claiming that you don't have an ideology really *would* be demeaning, as it would implicitly be a claim that you act without thought!

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