Publication: CommWeb USA
the presidential election a month away, one issue, offshoring, continues to
embody Americans' anxieties about the future of their livelihoods. For
someone who is fortunate to have a job, being replaceable is scary enough.
But the realization that one's work is reducible to a labor cost - the lower
the better - upsets the foundation of one's existence. In call centers, it's
especially difficult for people who serve and support customers to believe
they have something valuable to contribute when their employers' staffing
decisions seem to reflect how little their work is worth.
To make matters worse,
offshoring, whether in factories or call centers, doesn't engender a better
understanding of business cycles in a global economy. A more likely
reaction, among the general public, is xenophobia.
According to a survey Call
Center Magazine conducted with sister publication Managing Offshore, the
most common problem customers said they encountered with offshore call
centers was being unable to understand agents' accents. After difficulty
with accents, the leading complaints among customers were that agents didn't
seem to be well-trained or able to solve their problems. (You can find
further details in our Research Corner in this and last month's issues.)
I suspect that customers'
attitudes about offshoring influence their perceptions of agents'
competence. Some customers may object so much to offshoring in principle
that, in their minds, any agent with an accent becomes an inadvertent symbol
of cheap, overseas labor that preys on American jobs.
During the past few years,
companies have tried to justify offshoring as a means of reducing labor
costs. But customers don't care whether companies save money, even when
companies pass their cost savings on to them. They care about service.
As Bill Taylor, co-founder of
Fast Company magazine, wrote in the August 8 edition of The New York Times,
"the harder companies work to make products cheaper and better, the
less they seem to impress their customers."
The problem customers have with
offshoring isn't that agents handle calls far away from them. Customers
recognize that the consequence of being able to depend on 24-hour service or
support is that call centers have to expand their workforces among more
locations and time zones.
Customers resent offshoring
because of its association with cheap labor. From customers' perspectives,
offshoring is a reminder that companies can't or won't provide the best
possible resources to assist them. Customers don't like being reminded
they're not worth good service.
Perhaps the biggest problem with
offshoring is how we think about it. Instead of reducing offshoring to a
zero-sum game, so that the addition of jobs overseas automatically results
in the loss of jobs in the U.S., it's more helpful to examine how the
practice of offshoring continues to evolve. In this month's Expert Opinion
piece, Richard Mills writes that IT outsourcers, primarily those in the
Asia-Pacific region, are extending their capabilities beyond providing
technical support on their clients' behalf. Many of these
outsourcers, he says, are promoting a much broader type of expertise.
The logic? Compared to other
types of IT businesses, IT outsourcing, in Mills' view, has the largest
potential for growth. What potentially hampers this growth, Mills proposes,
is that IT and call center outsourcing are commodity businesses. When they
offer the same thing, they compete on price. But if an outsourcer can handle
customer service and support calls, for example, then the outsourcer can
claim that its value comes from its ability to manage its clients' business
processes in general.
In describing a trend from IT
outsourcing to business process outsourcing, Mills, a vice president with
Boyden, a global executive search firm, potentially charts a new direction
If we apply business process
outsourcing in its literal sense, then we change offshoring's dynamics. It's
no great accomplishment to reduce staff or find places to pay them the
least. But if outsourcers have the global reach to disseminate best
practices in customer service and support wherever companies employ agents,
then these outsourcers can contribute something valuable no matter where
Companies can't lose sight of
why they're in business. In deciding where to employ agents, companies have
to consider the cost of not serving customers effectively. A call center's
return on investment doesn't result from importing the lowest-cost labor. It
comes from sharing the most successful approaches - regardless of where they
originate - to serving customers.
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