Monday, May 8, 2006

Reflections on offshore outsourcing

Some time ago I heard a man—whether businessman, public official, or politician, or all of these, I do not know—on television talking about offshore outsourcing and why it is good for the United States and her citizens. He contended that outsourcing frees Americans to do other, "better, more important" things.

I could not believe my ears. And I could not imagine that anyone viewing this would believe it, either.

The offshore outsourced jobs I'm most familiar with are technical support and customer service. Ten years ago, when I called or e-mailed my ISP for help with a problem, I would get a person located at the corporate office who would ask me good questions and resolve the problem or escalate it if warranted. Most of them seemed to be young, not necessarily educated, but knowledgeable about operating systems, Internet clients, and connectivity issues. Unless it was a system issue on the ISP's end, most problems could be resolved in under five to ten minutes or in one or two e-mails. I would get a different person each time, and something of his or her personality would come through in the conversation whether it took place on the phone or by e-mail.

Now when I contact support, which I try to avoid doing, I receive scripted responses that do not take into account anything that I have actually said about the problem. For example, in OS 9 and lower for Macintosh, a standard problem-solving step is to rebuild the desktop file. I would contact support, now located halfway or more across the world, and find myself talking to "Kilroy." (Outsourced employees are told to use American names so as to make the less cosmopolitan among us feel comfortable; I wondered if this particular young man had been reading comic books and if he knew that "Kilroy" isn't really a typical American name.) I would tell "Kilroy" the problem and carefully go over the steps I had already taken to to resolve it—reboot, reboot with extensions off, rebuild the desktop file, etc. There would be a pause as he consulted his script. Invariably, "Kilroy" would say, "We are going to try to rebuild the desktop." I could protest all that I liked that I had done so already without result, but "Kilroy" was not allowed to deviate from the script, which meant that I couldn't, either. So I would go through the motions of rebuilding the desktop again.

Now when I need help I will go to a Usenet group or a mailing list first, which is most likely what many companies hope you will do. It means less effort and more money for them. Besides, communicators claim that the Internet, through vehicles such as blogs, has put power into the hands of the public, so that the public pulls the message from companies rather than companies pushing it, as in traditional top-down communications. The public can, therefore, apparently, provide itself with support.

So what happened to all those support people at headquarters, who were written up in company newsletters and whose accomplishments were touted online and in print communications to customers? I suppose that many, if not most, were fired or laid off. Maybe some went or returned to college, earned degrees, and moved on to "better" things, as the commentator wanted viewers to believe. Perhaps some discovered that any job for which they might be qualified was a candidate for outsourcing. Many would have, in time, moved on to better things on their own, as people do throughout their careers. But the next generation would not have the same opportunity for a good entry-level job that paid well and taught workplace and interpersonal skills. This move was not better for the individuals or for the vast, diverse group we call Americans; it was more efficient and cheaper for the companies, which no longer have to pay living wages or, worse, benefits like health care. It certainly was not better for customers.

In reality, it is not undesirable jobs that Americans don't want to do that have been outsourced. there is a perception, real or not, that Americans see themselves as above cleaning toilets, but Americans have been and are willing to fill technical support and customer service positions—for a living wage.

Outsourcing goes beyond support and service. I realized this in the past month or so when I received three or four calls, clearly from offshore, from salespersons representing my bank and credit card provider, trying to convince me that I need identity theft protection. Did the television pundit mean to tell us that Americans can do better than to go into sales and telemarketing? Some people have sales in their blood. Even I was a telemarketer for the summer after college, before I found a permanent position. As an introvert, I didn't like it, but I was very grateful for the opportunity—and, of course, the money. Now even telemarketing has been sent offshore. As an aside, telemarketing is as scripted as support. No matter what I said, the reader plunged ahead with his or her script until I hung up. I cannot imagine that this is an effective way to sell anything (unless the fear of identity theft is that prevalent and strong). It makes me want to re-evaluate my bank. After all, why should I wish to conduct business with an organization that treats neither employees nor customers with respect?*

That is why I find the idea that outsourcing "frees" Americans for "better, more important things" disingenuous and dishonest. The truth is that many jobs except direct-service ones do not have to be done on site and could be outsourced, e.g, technology, accounting, records and data processing, sales, marketing, programming, design, etc. Even copywriting and editing could be outsourced—and often is, to freelancers. Do Americans have "better, more important things" to do than to work at meaningful jobs and to receive pay for it?

Of course, the jobs of direct care providers such as physicians, nurses, dentists, optometrists, aides, assistants, and so forth cannot at this time be outsourced.

Nor can the jobs of the people who ask you if you want fries with that as they hand you your burger.

Until someone figures out how to completely automate the drive-through.

I feel "free" to do "better, more important things" already.

*To be fair, telemarketing has always been like this. Fifteen or twenty years ago, a call woke me up when I was suffering from a stomach virus. I answered; then, when I realized it was a sales call and also that getting up had produced another bout of nausea, I told the caller a half dozen times that I was sick and nauseated and that I needed to go. He continued on each time as though he had not heard me, never acknowledging what I had said or that I had even spoken. Finally I overcame my natural reluctance to be rude and hung up on him, mid-sentence. I have not hesitated to be rude since to persistent telemarketers who do not treat me like a person.


  1. "Until someone figures out how to complete automate the drive-through."

    It's happening already -- as this recent New York Times article describes. The jobs aren't going overseas, but they are going Elsewhere.

    (This article is now available only to Times Select subscribers, but I found a copy online.)

  2. Thanks for the link to the article. What a dehumanized world we live in it.

    I was thinking that someone still has to physically hand the burger and fries over. I'm waiting for the announcement that a robot arm will now do that.

    (This aspect is theoretical to me as I don't drive.)

  3. live in, not live in it. Long day.

  4. One of our office numbers used to be a residential number; as a result, it gets nailed by telemarketing daily. Not telemarketers: recorded speeches. My favourite is the one that claims she can get a better rate on my mortgage. Wouldn't my landlady be thrilled?!

    I remain thankful that there are still small companies who know that outsourcing support may be cheaper on payroll, but that it costs a business in so many other ways, and that real customer service is valued, perhaps moreso now that it's scarce.

  5. I used to be polite to telemarketers; no longer. I will interrupt once to tell them I am not interested. If they push on impolitely I tell them I mean NO and will hang up. The political telemarketers soliciting donations usually receive a piece of my mind and I can hear them shuffling scripts in the background. My remarks usually don't follow a predictable pattern. I only do that so they can make a mark in the "irate, incensed with most elected officials" column. I understand they are only trying to make a living, but they won't make a sale from someone who doesn't want to listen to them - they'll only irritate us all the more.