In the last issue of BusinessWeek there is an article on "The Ethics of Outsourcing Customer Service" by Bruce Weinstein.
"It's a familiar scenario: A product you purchased recently has developed a problem, so you call the company's toll-free number and are connected to a "customer service associate" in India or the Philippines. You describe your problem but have a hard time understanding what the company representative is saying. You try several more times to communicate why you are calling but cannot get information that you can comprehend. You ask to be transferred to someone in the U.S. and are then put on hold for what seems like an eternity. You hang up in frustration and vow never again to purchase anything from this company.
"More and more businesses are outsourcing not just manufacturing jobs but services ones too. On the face of it, this seems like a smart financial move: By slashing labor costs 25%, 50%, or more, companies that have had slim profit margins are now able to enrich the bottom line and keep shareholders happy.
"Outsourcing customer service, however, is not only unethical. It's bad for business."
For a moment, let's also distinguish between overseas staffing and outsourcing internationally. Yes, I certainly have been on the receiving end of less-than-perfect customer service when calling a company, but this is not just a factor of outsourcing. Here's an example of where it worked recently:
This past week we had a problem with a consumer electronic (a TV) so I called the manufacturer yesterday, on a weekend, expecting to get a message saying "call back as we're off for the weekend."
Guess what: someone answered, on a Saturday afternoon after lunch.
"Hi, this is John for Sharp Electronics. How can I help you?"
After giving all my information to John and detailing the problem, he said that I should call back the same number on Monday with my case number, and that a Sharp representative would have more information after looking at my case. Having read the above article, I asked: You don't work for Sharp?"
"No, I am a representative for [Sharp] and staff the weekend lines to make sure that the company responds to your needs. We take customer calls, send them to resources on the web and if we need to, we take down their information so Sharp can work on it first thing on Monday."
I recalled why I purchased devices from Sharp in the past and how this influenced our latest: the company is responsive.
[Follow up: Following my weekend call, I was on the phone with a rep on Monday morning who had already triaged the problem and had a set of things for me to try with the set. After going through the list, Sharp quickly arranged to dispatch a repairman who diagnosed the problem and authorized for a replacement to be shipped to me. In less than a week, I had a new set, and Sharp followed up to ensure that my needs had been met.]
(Disclaimer: I have worked closely with Sharp Electronics in the US and Japan during my career and always found the company to be very customer focused, innovative and hungry for my business.)
Sure, you're sure to run into poor customer service experiences as a result of outsourcing, as I have with one large PC manufacturer, a peripheral company and household appliance company -- these past issues are clearly in my memory. In two cases the service was from North American operators who clearly had no clue what was what or even the basic details of the product (or the company for that matter, mispronouncing the name of the stovetop manufacturer). And in another case, I couldn't make out a word the operator was saying, due to the poor connection (as if I were calling the outback via a string and two tin cans) and the unintelligible accent.
I agree with the author above that "working on the front lines of customer service means, first and foremost, being able to understand what the customer needs and then meeting those needs efficiently." In some cases, outsourcing works, and in others, it doesn't. Companies that place a premium on meeting the needs of their customers will enjoy better extended relationships that will encourage greater word of mouth support, repurchase and as in my case, consumer loyalty. These are some of the reasons we've purchased and repurchased products from Dell, HP, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba... as well as Microsoft.