There's a new double standard in town - and it sucks. I've noticed it on the periphery for some time but it's only this past week or so that it's come into the open. It's the Bangalore Double Standard and if we're ever going to get anywhere in making call centres work better, then we need to get over it now.
You will all be aware that - call centre wise - all roads lead to Bangalore or so it would seem from the weekly stream of announcements from UK companies. Tesco, Trainline and Orange (ok, French companies as well!) are the latest to make their passage to India.
Now, I don't know all the factors that drove those three to make their decisions, but it's a fair bet that cost cutting was pretty high on the agenda. In the case of Orange, it's fairly explicit given the demands of its parent company France Telecom to pare down.
Now, as we all know, cost cutting alone is not a good reason to foist your call centre overseas. As ever, outsourcing a problem still leaves it as a problem, just one that's now thousands of miles away and even more difficult to manage. But, assuming there is a justifiable case for offshoring, why are companies all so ashamed of it?
By which I mean, representatives of companies that have outsourced offshore will happily stand up and tell their peers all about how clever they've been in offshoring at industry seminars and conferences. But ask them for a comment on it for publication and you'd think that they were about to melt on the spot.
One CEO I spoke to on a casual basis gave me a beautifully rational case for offshoring in which he demonstrated how he was able to secure otherwise insecure jobs in the UK and pass on cost reductions to customers, thus increasing prospects for new business coming in. Excellent. Want to put that on the record for an article? No waaaaay! Step aside as the massed ranks of PR people drag him away to safety.
It's the B-word you see. It's all fine until you mention 'Bangalore'. Then the assumption is that the unions will scream and shout and the tabloids will froth at the mouth about UK jobs sacrificed to India and on and on and on. UK Plc has allowed itself to be cowed into a sense of shame about offshoring that is simply irrational and decidedly unhelpful.
I am as much a critic of offshoring as anyone else when it's not working. This week I had one of the worse call centre conversations of my life with a BT person in India. She was rude, abrasive and unhelpful. Somewhere along the line her much vaunted training had clearly broken down. She was a prime example of why you wouldn't consider offshore if you want to keep customer satisfaction levels high.
But if you're a UK firm that's thought out your call centre strategy and made it an integral part of your wider business and marketing strategy, then offshore is something that you should be debating openly. It makes no business sense not to. But the B-word is not the only problem. Too many firms have simply not thought through the real role of their call centre operations.
We have somehow allowed call centres to become corporate deities, angry gods that we mustn't disturb. I recently bought a bed. I was told in the shop that the next step was to call the call centre and arrange a delivery date. "But they're not very helpful," confided the shop assistant. OK, so I'm a customer and you're directing to me to a customer touchpoint that you say is not very good... fair enough.
Needless to say everything went wrong and when I went back into the shop and asked the assistant to call the call centre and sort it out. She refused. Point blank. If the call centre had said something, then that was what had to happen, no room for debate. It was clear that the call centre was not there to address the needs of customers, but to lay down the law in tablets of stone.
We need to come to terms with what a call centre is there for and what its role in customer management strategies should be. It should be the very heart of an organisation, the hub around which all other activities go on. Instead, it's seen as a first line of defence in most cases or as a cost burden that's getting out of control, so ship it overseas to make the shareholders happy. Just don't mention the B-word...
News & Analysis Editor