Outsourcing and Call Center Blog

10 October, 2007

Is Outsourcing Ethical?

As I’ve stated previously, I get quite a few visitors who are searching for information on call centre and outsourcing ethics. I normally interpret this to mean that they want to run an ethical call centre but clearly many (if not most) really are thinking about whether it is ethical to outsource at all. You really can’t know about who is visiting or why, unless someone leaves a comment, but I imagine the people looking at this issue may be managers who are thinking of outsourcing and wondering if it is the “right thing to do” or maybe students assigned to write a term paper or participate in a debate. Who knows. But as a Westerner sitting in India and working at an outsourcing firm, well, I should probably say a thing or two about this, and I’ll try to keep it as personal as possible.

Free Markets & Competition
I haven’t always been a marketer, at university I studied economics and got my undergraduate and graduate degrees in that discipline. When I was studying economics, Milton Friedman had just won the Nobel Prize and was emerging as a force on the national stage, most of my professors venerated him as did I. This made me a bit of a free-market guy then. Now in my later years I have certain reservations about free-markets as well as capitalism in general but I do accept that we live in a society that generally favours both. I submit this as background for my belief that outsourcing really isn’t anything special, it is the free market at work.

For pretty much my whole career I have been in Sales or Marketing. In each of my positions my job has been to increase the revenues of the company that I worked for and I can’t think of a single time, even with Illinois Bell and with AT&T, where I didn’t have competition. The nature of competition is to beat the other guys. Say what you will about a pie that’s big enough for everybody, but that’s not what’s happening on the ground. Out in the trenches we are fighting for each project, to win each RFP and to succeed while others fail. When the other guys failed, I assume people lost their jobs. I know that’s what happened in my company in Sweden. Our sales guys failed to get new work because some other companies were offering to do the jobs better, faster and/or cheaper and a few hundred people who used to be working on billing projects were gone.

Winners & Losers
Now I’m with a company whose business is outsourcing. My main goal is to take all of Wipro and Convergys and Genpact’s business. If I am successful it means I will hire lots of new staff and they won’t. The losers in that game though really are the insourced staff who will lose their jobs because my company can do the work better, faster and/or cheaper. That sucks, it really does, I’ve been laid off before and it’s not nice. But it’s not a matter of ethics, it has to do with this system that we are part of called capitalism and the reasons aren’t personal they are economic. One of the sharpest people I’ve ever worked for or known is a guy named Mike Durance who is the CEO of a Canadian new media company. One time when I was working for him, I was probably complaining about having to fly coach class on an international flight at the time, he said, “the nature of business is to continually cut back and reduce costs”. Some people call this a race to the bottom, I don’t know.

Of course there are winners in all this. CEOs (like Mike) will increase their bonuses for reducing costs and that should benefit shareholders as well. As I understand the politics of America for the last 6 years or so the prevailing belief is that if wealthy people are made even wealthier, that’s good for everyone (reminding me that David Stockman who introduced us to this “trickle down” theory during the Regan administration is now under indictment and facing 30 years in prison. I wonder if that’s enough).

For the people who lose their jobs to outsourcing, it doesn’t matter whether their jobs went to India or Indiana, the impact is exactly the same. The remedy is exactly the same too. Americans are lucky enough to have this incredible economy and incredible creativity and amazing flexibility that, on aggregate, keeps creating new jobs in new industries for new people to flow into. You could try to block this whole cycle with some kind of legislation, but then you would get France and god forbid, no one wants that.

Ethics and Outsourcing
For me personally, I have to face the fact that I am a part of a capitalist economic system. This is not altogether bad, it’s the only system I’ve ever known and it seems to have generally been quite successful. Capitalism has done some wonderful things for a lot of people, just ask Bill Gates or Richard Branson or Roman Abramovich or my dad. My father’s father scratched and clawed his way through a tough life but his eldest son became a respected and successful professor of Chemical Engineering in large part because of a system that rewards hard work, ambition, creativity and flexibility and is relatively blind to social class. As part of that capitalist system my job is to make more money and jobs for the team that I’m on at the time. Right now that team is in India and if anyone thinks it is unethical bringing greater wealth to this country that by some accounts has 836 million people living on less that 50 cents a day then I’ll plead guilty to that.

To me, of greater ethical importance is how my company treats its employees and how the country I am in deals out social justice. Frankly, I am less comfortable on these issues than I would like to be. I came here to learn and one thing I have learned is that we in the West have a respect for the intrinsic value of human beings that is not universally shared. I have seen this on the streets of Delhi and in the news and I’ve also seen how it permeates the workplace I am in as well. I am left with the feeling that if we in the West export some of our values about respect for the individual along with a few jobs we will have made the world a better and more ethical place.

6 October, 2007

Short-Timer’s Syndrome

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,India,Marketing,off shoring,Outsourcing,personal — shamrin @ 12:51

Well, If you’ve been following along here you know we signed up for a year’s stint here in Incredible India and the end of that time is approaching fast. When I was at AT&T many years ago we had a name for that thing that happens when a person has taken another job and is in the final days or weeks of the old one – “Short-timers Syndrome”. Anyone who has ever changed jobs knows what I’m talking about. The symptoms are a desire to take long lunches, have casual friendly conversations with your colleagues, call friends on the phone and generally go about your workday in a relaxed sort of way. It’s like a big long exhale. Alas, like a drunk on a runaway roller-coaster I am not destined to cruise gently into this goodnight.

The Website
For one thing, the website I’ve been working on, which is officially about a week behind schedule, is probably more like 3-4 weeks late (please don’t mention this to by boss). Since my project manager for it has vanished I’ll need to really bear down on this task if it’s going to get finished, and I haven’t even had a single comment from my management on the content so getting approvals on my radically new marketing approach should be an absolute joy (not).

Cold-Calling
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it here but I’ve been managing an expansion of our call centre’s footprint into the UK market. Suddenly last week that turned from a management and oversight task to a hands-on do-it-yourself cold-calling task (for reasons hinted at in my last entry). Now, the last time I did cold-calling was during the Carter administration, an era during which dinosaurs roamed the earth and we carried something called a “Bell Boy” pager because mobile phones had not been invented. Fortunately I’ve got a smart, energetic young protégé working for me to whom I am laying-off most of the heavy-lifting on this task. But still, between the 3 of us in Marketing (now Marketing & Sales) we’re committed to come up with a slew of qualified leads and conversions in the next eight weeks. If you smell something burning it’s probably the phone lines between India and London.

OK, well I don’t usually write about such personal things here in my business blog but I realised this morning that there were no real rules here so I could do as I wished. If you are a regular reader here, please stay tuned. I’ll continue to write about BPO and Call Centre issues for at least the rest of the year or so and it could actually get pretty exciting around here.

4 October, 2007

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,personal,Rant,Trust,Values — shamrin @ 23:06

There were a couple of things going on here in the last week that led me to an entry about telling the truth. The first event is that we spent the weekend in Dharamsala, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, political and spiritual leader of Tibet. The second event is that some people on my staff broke my trust and that of my organisation in such a brazen and bold way, that I’m still trying to come to grips with it. Now, it’s hard to explain how these two things came together, so hard in fact that I’ve had to scrap two attempts to do it. Yet I still am compelled to record something on this topic.

I have mentioned here before the reverence I have for the late M. Scott Peck and his series of books that starts with The Road Less Travelled. Peck has insights into how we really are that consistently leave me amazed and that never fail to instruct. In a section of The Road Less Travelled called “Withholding the Truth” he has some insights into truth-telling that I will quote here as they say more than I can on this topic.

Yet the rewards of the difficult life of honesty and dedication to the truth are more than commensurate with the demands. By virtue of the fact that their maps are continually being challenged, open people are continually growing people. Through their openness they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively than more closed people. Because they never speak falsely thay can be secure and proud in the knowledge that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion of the world, but have served as sources of illumination and clarification. Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. they do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. they need waste no effort covering tracks or maintaining disguises. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness. The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.

– M. Scott Peck

It’s funny how often I see in the statistics on this blog that people have searched for something like “call center ethics” or “ethics of running a BPO”. It’s encouraging to me that people are concerned about such topics and I hope that this blog in some way contributes positively in this area. So, if you’ve found this entry with that particular search, here is your pay-off; Tell the truth, it makes life better.

9 September, 2007

Standard Chartered Revisited

Filed under: Customer Service,India,Marketing,personal,Standard Chartered — shamrin @ 10:41

In August I wrote an entry called “The whole world is watching” in which I suggested that the way we do business and the way we treat employees is more important than ever. I went on to say then:

Web 2.0 has not gripped India the way it has America and other parts of the west, we don’t have 1 billion bloggers yet, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there are sure to be benefits for organisations that conduct themselves in the most ethical, transparent ways.

Well, maybe I wasn’t giving India enough credit. Last week I took Standard Chartered Bank to task on this blog for a shameful level of customer service from their call center and an incident that occurred in their local branch. On Friday I received two phone calls, one from the branch and one from the call center apologising for the problem and assuring me that this is not the level of service they expect customers to receive. They said that they had seen the blog and were prompted to call and make amends. There had apparently been quite a fuss in the branch over all this too as the one of the staff came out to apologise in person when he saw me at the ATM on Saturday.

I was a little taken aback by all this because I’m not used to a bank really giving a damn when I complain, ask anyone that banks in the UK and they will tell you the same thing. So full credit to Standard Chartered for their mea culpa, I think they did pretty much everything they could after the fact to fix things up. Now the proof is in how they do things better, I hope they do.

But I was just as taken aback by the fact that someone at Standard Chartered found my comments here and triggered a response within the organisation that led to me being called. That’s no small feat and it makes me wonder if they actually have a program to monitor their online reputation. Whether they do or whether finding my comments was just some amazing coincidence (like my wife running into a high school classmate here in Delhi this weekend) it demonstrates that large organisations do care about their online reputation. We would all do well to follow this practice in the future.

21 August, 2007

The whole world is watching

Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting column recently for the New York Times about how we all lead public lives now. He says that with blogs and mobile camera phones we are all publishers and paparazzi. You have to be a Times Select subscriber to read the article (alas) but here is the link: The Whole World Is Watching.

In case you’re not a Times Select subscriber, I will shamelessly quote from the article while simultaneously hoping not to offend Mr. Friedman or the NYT both of which I highly respect. Friedman says:

When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.

He goes on to talk about Dov Seidman and a new business ethics book he has written called, “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life)” and says that the lives of young people will now be indelibly documented in the “Permanent Record” that is the internet. Funny how one of the biggest threats that an authority figure could make against young people of my generation was that some mistake or otherwise stupid thing you had done was going to, “go into your Permanent Record”. What he is referring to here is the growing importance of online reputation which is important both to people and to businesses. Your actions are now increasingly transparent in this connected world, with the possibility of word of them spreading rapidly and virally. We marketers try to harness this power (sometimes at our peril) but online rep has a life of its own.

Friedman concludes by quoting Seidman saying,

“We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides … visible and exposed to all,” he writes. So whether you’re selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the news-stand), get your hows right — how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you’re sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do — or don’t.

I don’t necessarily think there is a special message here for those of us in the Call Centre business, but there is definitely a message. How we conduct our business and how we manage and care for our employees will become increasing public information and will impact our online and real-world reputations. Web 2.0 has not gripped India the way it has America and other parts of the west, we don’t have 1 billion bloggers yet, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there are sure to be benefits for organisations that conduct themselves in the most ethical, transparent ways.

27 June, 2007

Looking for something new? Try India

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,personal — shamrin @ 10:06

Lee Iwan has written a couple of blogs lately about the importance of changing your routine and how moving to another country is a great way to do it. I firmly agree with Lee on both of these counts and I would like to add my advice that for a westerner, India would be a great place to try something new.

Here in India, I’ve been exposed to people, places, ideas and ways of living that I just would never do in any country in the West. While this culture seems in many ways to be trying mightily to emulate the west, especially America, the fact remains that its social and religious history and core values are very different. So the patina of Westernism, which one sees notably in the form of consumerism, covers a very different underlying way of living life. This vast difference is what makes spending time here so challenging, informative and valuable for a westerner like me. And the opportunity to learn goes so much further than overcoming ones preconceptions about India and Indians, it’s an opportunity to learn about and test one’s self in new and unfamiliar territory.

“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897 

20 June, 2007

The Pursuit of Happines and Outsourcing

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,off shoring,Outsourcing,personal — shamrin @ 9:57

Like a modern day Mary MacGregor I’m really torn between two topics today. Alan Alter writes in a recent blog for CIO Insight about an outsourcing study by consultants A.T. Kearney. The article with the unwieldy but descriptive title “Offshore Success is Uneven, Says Kearney Study”, is about this study and others that appear to confirm an interesting paradox about outsourcing:

Companies that pursue cost savings as their primary goal in outsourcing are less likely to realise savings than companies that prioritise other goals.

Now I believe if you take a few minutes to consider this you’ll find that it is less paradoxical than it first appears, but what really caught my eye was the way Alan introduces the topic. He says:

The British philosopher John Stuart Mill discovered he couldn’t achieve happiness by pursuing it; happiness is a by-product of focusing your energy on doing worthwhile things.

And as much as I wanted to write this morning about the paradox of seeking cost-savings in outsourcing (I do have some thoughts on the subject), I just couldn’t get my mind off this Maslow’s chart-topper topic of pursuing happiness. So instead of bloviating on management efficiencies and creating value I will recommend a very interesting article that I recently read called “Can Money Buy Happiness” on CNN Money.com.  Read it,  it might just make your life better.

12 June, 2007

About Trust

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,Outsourcing,personal,Trust — shamrin @ 18:30

I’ve written before about the importance of building trust with our customers and prospects and it’s almost impossible to talk about it too much. Trust is not just the glue that binds business relationships together, it is the very fabric of our relationships, business and personal. I was riding past the IGI Airport here in Delhi today and thinking about what the great American football coach Vince Lombardi reportedly said about winning, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing“. Well I think Vince was wrong about that, I believe how you play the game matters, but I will borrow his method of juxtaposition anyway and say, “Trust isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

The reason I was thinking about this topic was an article in today’s Hindustan Times called “The Torment of Deceit” by Aash Aurora in a column called Inner Voice. (more…)

8 June, 2007

Outsource your life

Filed under: BPO,off shoring,Outsourcing,personal — shamrin @ 10:13

Here’s an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal c/o Yahoo on how some Americans are finding opportunities to get good services at reasonable prices by outsourcing personal service offshore. I’ve wondered before whether a large(ish) BPO like ours would be able to come up with a business model to handle individual outsourcing on a mass scale. Alas, the learning curve would be steep as the way we staff, collect revenues and market our services would all requiring re-thinking. Just the same, it seems to me there is an opportunity for an organisation that can build a reputation for quality without the hassles described in the article.

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