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.

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17 September, 2007

5 Key Values for Call Centers (or any other business)

As I’ve mentioned here previously, I’m working on drafting a new company mission statement and identifying a set of “company values”. I’m a bit ambivalent about the idea of creating company values for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think companies have actual values, people do and it can be dangerous to get these things confused. I’m willing to move past this based on the argument that one need look no further than the late Dame Anita Roddick to be convinced that a single person’s own values can guide a whole company and the way it operates.

This is related to my second concern, that values are actually quite important for people and they shouldn’t be messed with or taken lightly by marketers (like me) merely for crass monetary gain. If we’re going to come up with values that we talk to our employees about and that we make public with wall posters or websites, our management damn well better believe in them with their heart and soul otherwise both staff and customers will quickly see through them for the sham they are. I think in the case of Roddick’s Body Shop chain, her consistency in this regard contributed much of their success and the fact that they are now one of the most trusted brands in the world.

So, what are the key values that I believe a call center should embrace? They are:

  • Strive to achieve customer delight in all your activities,
  • Foster trust and personal responsibility in all of your relationships,
  • Develop your people personally and professionally and encourage them to reach their full potential,
  • Be boldly innovative, in solving problems, in exploring new business opportunities and in anticipating and meeting customer needs,
  • Be honest and transparent in all your business dealings.

I don’t know if this is a complete set, but I’m pretty sure that any organisation that accepts and adheres to these as its “values” will be a good company to work for and to do business with.

3 September, 2007

Company Values

I was going through my routine this morning of checking the blogs I regularly follow and it struck me how often some of them deal with values. Both Maria Palma at Customers are always and Tom Vander Well, who I reference here often, seem to address company and personal values issues quite often. I think this is because we are in a customer service business and we recognise the “service” part of that role. If that’s right, it is hopeful for this business that people in leadership are speaking out. The subject of company values is particularly interesting to me right now because I am developing a new website for my company and plan to include a “Mission & Values” section to help describe what we are all about.

Now, “mission” and “values” aren’t the same thing but the process of developing a new mission statement has led me to think about what our values are, and what they should be. How do we want to do business? What sort of reputation would we like to have? What is it that we intend to bring to the market?

I don’t believe that companies are like people. They can’t be “kind” or “generous” or “compassionate” like people. When they seem to behave in these ways, with few exceptions they do so for profit motive (you don’t really think McDonalds “believes” in the Olympic movement do you?). But just the same businesses are made up of people and those people can be influenced to behave in certain ways based on stated values. So if those at the top of the organisation care about how their business makes money, mission and values that are committed to and followed by management are important because they give real people guidance in how to carry out their jobs.

31 August, 2007

Being Successful

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,HR & Staffing,India,social responsibility — shamrin @ 11:38

Living and working in India right now reminds me so much of living and working in the US during the 80’s. The 80’s was a kind of awakening time in America, it was all about growth and “making it” and achievement. Reagan was in the White House and brought with him an optimism that finally overcame the ennui that followed the Vietnam war. During this decade the US made a kind of come-back into a roll of prominence on the world stage. The stock market boomed and Gordon Gekko told us, “Greed is good”.

Now it seems to be India’s turn. Tech jobs are plentiful, people have more options for their lives than ever before and the malls are springing up like desert flowers after a rain shower (within 1 mile of my office there are currently seven malls with 4 more being built, one of which will be the largest in Asia).

The 80’s were a long time ago and my definition of success is a lot different now than it was then. But being here now and working with so many young people, in their twenties and just starting out their careers, I often feel the urge to talk to them about success and leadership and values. One of the things I tell them about success at work is that I believe there are three basic things you have to do in your job:

  • Make money for your shareholders / company
  • Bring value to your customers
  • Have fun

I believe if you concentrate on and achieve these three things, and these three things alone, you will be successful at whatever you do. In fact, if you do these things I think you can dispense with most of the other stuff that make jobs unfulfilling (like following the rules:-). Moreover if you are not doing these things on your current job (especially the third one), you should find a new job.

10 June, 2007

The Other Side of Outsourcing

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,off shoring,Outsourcing,social responsibility — shamrin @ 12:43

This is a really brilliant program that the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman did for the Discovery Channel. It really gives you a good feel for the people and places of Indian Call Centres and it does so in an unbiased way. I think as much as anything I take away from this a sense that we all have to wake up, and in some cases grow up, and realise that the borders that we used to have, that are a barrier to trade, movement, growth and freedom are simply outdated. We are in this world and this world economy together pretty much whether we like it or not. I think this is at least part of the basic message in Friedman’s book, The World is Flat.

From a personal perspective I thought there were some very interesting insights by Indian luminaries in the video. Ananthia Murthy talks about the growing level of wealth and the dissolving Indian culture being overrun by western culture. Comparing western family practices to India’s traditional extended family culture he says,

“[Now] if you are wealthy enough, rich enough, you may send your parents to an old person’s home…and I think that’s sad.”

26 May, 2007

Corporate Responsibility

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,Outsourcing,social responsibility — shamrin @ 12:21

When I was living in London, I spent a little over a year running a computer centre for the poor that was located on a large social housing estate there. We had a very nice internet cafe, we taught computer literacy courses for kids and adults and helped people out with problems with immigration, bills and the other myriad problems that life seems to dish out disproportionately to the poor. Part of my job also was fund raising. I never enjoyed that part but it gave me some time and cause to think about corporate responsibility and corporate social responsibility. I was reminded of this topic by a front page article in the Hindustan Times on Friday on a speech given by Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh in which he laid out “Ten Commandments for Industry” here in India. I have to admit that I’m weirded-out by the idea of a Sikh in a mostly Hindu country using a reference from the Jewish Bible to talk about corporate responsibility but I applaud the notion and I think we in the BPO business would do well to pay attention to it. Here is the list as printed in the paper (click for a full-size version): (more…)

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