The Politics of Call Center Outsourcing

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

With the United States’ fall elections behind us, I am now recovering from the inundation of all messages political. From these saner confines of a post-election U.S., I can address the “serious” problem of outsourcing. Succinctly put, outsourcing, an often prudent, wise, and cost-effective practice, has been politicized. Once a word becomes politicized, as outsourcing was in the 2004 United States presidential campaign and resurrected in 2006, reasonable thinking seemingly stops and logic becomes, well, illogical. Rhetoric steps in and common sense is relegated to things of lesser importance.

So, emotion and rhetoric aside, what is outsourcing? In its broadest, most general sense, outsourcing is having another company or person do work for you that you could do yourself. This occurs at both a business level and a personal level – and more frequently then you might first surmise.

Some common business outsourcing examples include: payroll, bookkeeping, human resources, building maintenance, cleaning service, telecommunications management, public relations, executive search, tax accounting, information technology, and, of course, call processing. On the personal level, we outsource as well. Consider the dry cleaner, car wash, tax accountant, lawn service, car mechanic, maid service, pizza delivery, catering, and so forth. In fact, anyone who provides a service is actually an outsourcer, and we are all – individually and corporately – consumers of outsourcing services.

Does this imply that outsourcing is a manifestation of laziness or greed? Although that may be the case in some limited instances, the far more common and general reasoning is that outsourcing can reduce costs, save time, or result in higher quality. Sometimes outsourcers can provide two of these results or maybe even all three. Another oft-stated justification for outsourcing is that it allows organizations to offload nonessential tasks, thereby permitting them to focus limited resources (which is a reality for every organization) on their core competencies. Some organizations have even found it beneficial to outsource their core competencies. And why not outsource if the work can be done cheaper, better, or faster by a specialist?

Therefore, we can correctly conclude that the entire service sector provides outsourcing services, that we all use outsourcing services, and that there are many wise and beneficial business reasons to do so. So why all the flap over something that is so common and so pervasive?

Although the word outsourcing is the moniker that has been villainized, this is a grossly unfair and ignorant generalization. What the focus and outcry is seemingly about is offshore call center outsourcing that is done poorly. Offshoring is not outsourcing, but rather a subset of it. In fact, the majority of call center outsourcing today is reportedly intra-country.  That is, it is companies located within the U.S. outsourcing call-processing work to call centers located within the country. Yes, there is an increasing trend towards offshore call center outsourcing, and it may one day represent the majority, but for the near future, it embodies a minority of call center outsourcing, where it is projected to remain for several years.

This is in no way to imply that I am against offshore call center outsourcing. I am, in fact, a hard-core, free-market, laissez-faire idealist. At least until my phone call is answered by someone who I can’t understand, be it due to a heavy accent or words that are used in a way that simply don’t make sense. While such a result may be indicative (but not necessarily so) that a call center is located outside the country, it is critical to point out that the converse should not be assumed either. That is, every agent who speaks with clear and comprehensible English is not necessarily US-based.  They too, could be offshore. Just as lucid and concise communication can occur with agents in other countries, severe communication hurdles can exist with agents located within our borders. The real frustration is not with the location of the agent, but quite simply with the agent’s ability to clearly and effectively communicate with the caller.

Politicians saw this frustration as a safe and acceptable campaign issue. They made the false assumption that it was a location issue, put a false label on it (outsourcing versus offshoring), vilified it, and promoted themselves as the ones who could solve the problem they defined. That’s politics!

The next step was to bolster their argument. National security issues were brought into play, as were personal privacy concerns, since information was leaving the country to reside in a foreign-located database. The exporting of jobs was denounced, as was the harm that this was causing to the U.S. economy. By the time the politicians were done, outsourcing was portrayed as a threat to all that is dear to the hearts and minds of the people. It was the enemy and it had to be stopped. Rhetoric is persuasive, and outsourcing became demonized.

The results of all this are sad, but predictable. First, people learned that is was okay to be intolerant of agents who spoke with an accent or hadn’t yet fully mastered the English vernacular. Unfortunately, some people went beyond intolerance, with their attitudes spilling over into hatred, bigotry, and abhorrence. Secondly, we were brainwashed into thinking that outsourcing is unpatriotic and therefore, unacceptable.

Lastly, and most dangerously, has been a spate of bills introduced on the national, state, and local level to regulate and restrict inbound call centers, not unlike what was done to outbound calling a few years ago. Although the intent of these bills are ostensibly focused against the offshore call center, their broad and inclusive language is all-encompassing, covering all call center outsourcers and having widespread ramifications for the in-house call center as well.

I encourage you to not be caught up in all the political rhetoric and emotional tirades. Forget about the politics of outsourcing and consider it from the standpoint of how to best serve your patients and callers. After all, that is what good business is all about.

Politics Aside

  • Outsourcing is not synonymous with offshoring.
  • Outsourcing is good, beneficial, and necessary; call center outsourcing is an important and valuable option.
  • Offshore outsourcing is here, it is real, and the marketplace should decide its position in the global economy – not the government.
  • Each organization needs to carefully consider if outsourcing (be it offshore or on-shore) is a viable strategic option.
  • The real enemy is legislation, which if left unchecked, will forever and detrimentally change the business of calling, be it outbound or inbound, outsource or in-house, on-shore or offshore.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the December 2006/January 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]