Outsourcing Becomes One of Television’s Hottest Plots | Article

When I wrote my first story for the Outsourcing Center in 1999, I received only blank stares when I tried to explain my new passion. Most people confused it with outplacement.

Back then, many people probably noticed that someone other than their company printed their paychecks. But unless you were losing your job because your employer chose to outsource it, most people had no idea what outsourcing was.

Offshsoring, for better or worse, thrust outsourcing into the public domain. Everyone in America seemed to call for help and discovered someone with an accent on the other end of the 800 number.

The sea change in public awareness struck me late one night after watching some of the television shows I had taped. (Watching TV in real time seems so 1990s.)

Cold Case

This is a police procedural, which CBS cut this season. The Philadelphia detectives discover some new clue that helps them solve an old, cold case.

In this episode someone is bombing people they don’t like by intricately wiring music boxes with explosives. The police interview the first victim, who is the manager of the mechanical engineering department of a construction firm. He laid off most of his department because the company outsourced the engineering to India. It turns out the bomber lost it after he lost his job. He got even by blowing up everyone who crossed him, starting with his boss.

This show showed the ugly underside of job loss, which, of course, is not limited to outsourcing.

Medium

Medium is the story about the DuBois family. Joe, the father, is a newly unemployed aerospace engineer. Allison, the mother, is a clairvoyant who dreams about crime scenes. She used to work for the Phoenix district attorney catching the bad guys before he lost the last election. So she’s unemployed, too. The family of five is having money problems.

A recent episode had Bridget, the couple’s eight-year-old daughter, answer a phone call from a creditor. She struck up a friendship with Rashmi, a young Indian working in the credit card company’s call center in Bangalore. Bridget thinks it’s cool Rashmi can talk to people all over the world.

The show portrayed the call center workers as professional and caring.

Outsourced

This new TV show takes the call center theme to a new dimension. A Kansas City tchotchke firm outsources its call center to India and sends its newly-minted call center manager Todd to Mumbai to manage the team. The show pokes fun at everything Indian. But it is an equal opportunity observer: It also skewers Todd as a tyro out of his league in the developing world and mocks Charlie, the typical Ugly American who imports his own processed American cheese.

I asked Andrew Kokes, Vice President of Marketing at Sitel, what he thought of the show. Sitel earned $1.8 billion from call center work last year; one-third of which comes from offshore revenue. Four thousand of its 60,000 offshore call center agents are in India.

“To me, the show is 10 years behind the times,” says Kokes. For example, the call center worker who breaks into a Mississippi accent, magnolias and all, is a thing of the past, according to Kokes. “In 2000 we gave our Indian staff cultural training. We worked with accents and even taught them U.S. weather patterns. But today, we have moved way beyond that,” he explains.

Today, he says, Sitel is more interested in creating better customer satisfaction. “Our training now focuses on active listening skills. We discovered as long as we resolve the issue, U.S. customers are happy with the call,” Kokes says.

Currently, customers who have a problem will go to Google and try to find a solution on the Web, either at the company’s Web site or a trouble-shooting forum. “By the time they call, they want to talk to an expert. Today they don’t call if they can’t turn on their PC. They call when they can’t network all their computers at home. They only get frustrated with us if we can’t solve the problem,” he explains.

Kokes adds that the young workers who populate his call centers “are more aligned with American culture” than the workers in the show. He rails at the implied ignorance of the show’s call center workers. “Call center workers in India have a higher level of education than our call center workers in America. That’s a huge benefit to us because today, callers have solved all the simple issues themselves,” Kokes says.

He says the show was spot-on on a couple of things. “The food stories are true. Water is a problem for anyone who didn’t grew up there,” he says. And the cows in traffic are SOP in India. He says he once got stuck in traffic and a man riding a camel passed him.

What does this all mean? If Hollywood plots reflect the larger culture, then outsourcing/offshoring has become a known and accepted (like it or not) business practice. Politicians can rant, but economics have won in the end.

As for me, I can puff up and say, to paraphrase Barbara Mandrell, “I was in outsourcing before outsourcing was cool.”


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