I had my first real taste of Indian offshore call centres last week - and it wasn't fun. First came the cold call from a financial services firm, from someone calling himself James. He said he was calling from a well-known UK firm, but the two second delay in his answers rather gave away his location as somewhere in the region of Bangalore. As did the very badly scripted UK-friendly chat he was given to read out.
Days later I had to chase up an unpaid invoice from a company. The phone number I rang was in the North of England; the person who answered the phone was in Delhi. Moreover, quite apart from the bad connection and the poor quality of the line, she was singularly ill-briefed to run an accounts payable hotline. My clue here came when she didn't know what VAT meant...
Now, clearly that's not her fault, she just hasn't been trained properly and that could have been equally true had she been based in Doncaster rather than Dehli. But after having to ring back twice before finally being passed to someone in London, my impatience was enormous and my perception of this particular company's customer service was at an all time low.
With uncanny timing, that same day a report from research firm ContactBabel hit my in-box claiming that while companies gain cost efficiencies from offshore outsourcing, they simultaneously lose out in terms of poorer customer service.
There's an increasingly important national debate to be had about what is looking like a tide of outsourcing from the UK to India. It's one that's not being addressed by bland comments from the Prime Minister about how sorry he is that thousands of Norwich Union employees are about to face redundancy in the run up to Christmas. Or in the improbable prediction from eEnvoy Andrew Pinder that somehow the exodus of jobs will end up being good for the UK economy.
In the US, the debate has started and predictably enough is being taken to extremes as that country's post 9/11 protectionist mentality exerts itself with the blessing -
nay, encouragement, of an administration that's been ready to risk a trade war with its European partners and break global trading laws in order to pick up a few votes from steel workers back home.
So it's hardly surprising to hear the cries coming from many US states for penalties to be imposed against companies that outsource jobs to the sub-continent or for visa regulations to be manipulated in order to make such decisions impossible to enforce.
Such cries border either on an incipient xenophobia or a patriotism overdose, but they do not belong as part of a rational debate. The current UK government first came to power proclaiming "education, education, education". All these years later, that remains their only response to the current crisis facing UK call centre employees. It's not good enough frankly and the price may yet end up being paid at the ballot box.
But that'll be too late for thousands upon thousands of UK workers... and hopefully for greedy companies which choose to pursue cost cutting at the expense of customer relations.