About a decade ago, many companies in the UK pushed their customer service centres offshore to new call centres located far away - often in India or the Philippines. The aim was to save money because the captains of industry bought into the idea that distance was dead - work in call centres can be performed anywhere by anyone.
Everyone knows what happened next. While it is technologically possible to locate a call centre anywhere in the world, it is not possible to replicate the same customer service culture very easily. Banks were especially guilty of expecting their customers to talk to someone in a different continent about very personal financial products.
People still complain about call centres today, but the problems are slightly different and the companies are a lot smarter. If you are calling for help because your computer is broken then you almost certainly don't care where the call is answered - so long as the person who is on the end of the line fixes your problem. Conversely, when you call the bank to talk about your mortgage, you want to talk to someone who understands exactly what that mortgage and home means to you, because they share similar values.
But there is a lot of ground in the middle - help with a TV subscription for example - where calls can be answered remotely if the remote location has a fairly close cultural affinity. This is where South Africa has tried focusing in the past few years, a place where UK customer service can take place without all the issues of accent and culture that have afflicted some of the Asian customer service providers.
I recently went to Cape Town to see what is happening with customer service on the ground there. I spoke with many of the service providers, the trade body BPeSA, and a group of international industry analysts who are all focused on how call centres are changing across the world.
Peter Ryan, Principal Analyst at Ovum said: "Confidence in the [South African call centre] industry is now off the charts. Take a look at the expansion that's happening - people and companies and that's all testament to what the industry has done here"
Ryan is right. There is an enormous and buoyant feeling of confidence in South African businesses right now and this view is echoed by Stephen Loynd, Global Program Manager, Customer Contact at Frost & Sullivan: "The first thing I have seen [on arriving] is the momentum. I saw Amazon.com operating down here and it was great to see US-based companies working with South Africa now, which compares to my last visit here in 2007 when the focus was just UK companies."
Franco Cotumaccio, Managing Director South Africa at Capita believes that the unity of the industry as a whole has made the country a better place to do business. He said: "There has been a lot of interest in South Africa over the years, with the last few years showing many more companies moving here. The arrival of Capita, Serco, WNS, Aegis and Teleperformance [all service providers] has given more credibility to South Africa in general and more companies will now come."
This is supported by the UK and South Africa CEO of one of the companies mentioned by Cotumaccio, Teleperformance. Alistair Niederer said: "We have seen how all the operators in South Africa are working well together to build the industry. This helps to raise the tide for the entire industry and, as they say, if the tide is raised then all the boats will follow."
These are business-focused commentators talking about call centres and the customer service industry as a whole, but UK consumers already know that the market is changing even if they have no personal experience working in call centres.
Contact centres are not just call centres now that social media is becoming a more popular way for customers to ask for help in many markets. Customers who expect to receive service 24/7 on Twitter or Facebook are no longer bothered about the accent of the agent, but everything they do is transparent - great service can be shared with friends, just as an example of really bad service can also be shared.
In this environment, cultural affinity is going to be more important than ever for the companies running call centres. They will need to be even closer to the customer, or located in places where there is a good natural fit - like South African customer service agents working with UK customers. Accents will no longer matter in this environment, but great service is going to matter more than ever.