The B-Word

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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...

Stuart Lauchlan
News & Analysis Editor
[email protected]

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11th Feb 2005 15:15

Homesourcing seems to be the latest buzzword for saving jobs and at the same time reducing costs and improving customers’ experience.

Opinions have been aired that it will be economical to provide call centre service through executives who are working at home. And also that since the executives will be geographically nearer to the outsourcing companies, the companies will be in a better position to manage those executives.

Homesourcing is thus being claimed as a better business option than exporting call centre jobs from US to India.

But the validity of all these claims hangs on one assumption. And that is, it will be easier to manage thousands people who are individually working in separate places – their homes – of the same country than to manage the same number of people who are working at one centre though that centre may be in a different country.

Is this assumption valid?

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By karibu
10th Feb 2005 14:39

I must admit to being baffled. For some time we have been preached to about "integrating" with our customers, engaging with them - examine why we do things. If it improves our customers experience and adds value - then do it, if it doesnt then........at least think very hard.

Then we outsource/offshore our primary point of customer contact to a third party, or an organsiation with a very different cultural baseline, or both!

I'm sure it can work but does it?

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By njw51
10th Feb 2005 16:33

I find it interesting that businesses are open to moving their call centres to India, but find it very difficult to accept that you don't actually need a building for call centre. The technology exists to use homeworkers and if you get the support and management style right, then you can get the same cost as if you outsourced to India (where salaraies are now rising at a rate of over 25% pa), but the ability to use a more mature, dedicated and skilled person at the end of the phone. Have a look at www.ki-work.com for more details.

We appear to still be back in the mind set that if I can't see the person working, they aren't working. Progress? What progress!

Neil Watson

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10th Feb 2005 15:42

Interesting article... I would like to see it being backed by some analysis like CSI before and after outsourcing. If the customer experience has taken a dip, the company's bottom line will not be far behind.

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10th Feb 2005 15:43

It seems you have more of a bone to pick with call centre work going offshore rather than the fact that customers are getting lousy service. I recently called the orange customer service department (somewhere in the UK) and was treated to appaling service. The agent was rude, confrontational and dismissive. And to talk of a break down in his "much vanunted" training would be a joke. He did not seem to have been trained at all. The point I am trying to make is that call centres should provide courteous and helpful service, regardless of whether they are located in India, UK or Azerbaijan, and whether they are outsourced or captive. I agree that it is that much more difficult to maintain acceptable standards when off-shoring, but that does not mean it is not a viable alternative. Training and strict QA procedures will increase costs but will ultimately ensure quality service that makes economic sense.

In any case, most call centre jobs are outsourced to Bombay, Delhi, Pune etc (the north and west of India). and not Bangalore (the south) as that is the destination for most Hi-tech (read software development and design) jobs. Therefore you may need to re-analyse the etymology behind your "b-word".

See link:
http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/64952.cms

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14th Feb 2005 10:24

Having read your article about the outsourcing of call centres I have to agree very much with your point of "tablets of stone". My observation of the outsourced model is that the procedures are at fault. Our Indian counterparts are very good at doing what they are told. They will not deviate from the set path or instructions set out in the procedures, and are merely acting as components in a predefined routine. I have decided to think of them as robots. They are pre-programmed with the operation which they carry out and they are unable to process inputs which do not fall within those predefined boundaries. I therefore believe that the problem lies with the programmers (i.e. the company managers who set the ball rolling), which I think is also the direction you were taking with your comments that it must be planned correctly.

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16th Feb 2005 21:02

Come to India, One Billion people can't be wrong.

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