Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The art of outsourcing frustration

In the UK and Ireland, almost all telephone queries, helplines, and even booking some domestic services, such as flights, are outsourced. Seemingly, it is cheaper to hire people in the developing world than to carry out such tasks locally. Last week, however, I reached the end of the road with the infamous call centre.

After struggling for a week with a terminally slow Internet connection, I made the dreaded call to the so-called help desk. I was greeted by a cheery voice, presumably in Bangalore. I explained the problem and was passed from person to person for 30 minutes, repeating my story. Eventually, I was told someone would call back within 48 hours. Someone phoned two days later with the joyous news that an engineer would visit between 8:00 and 13:00 the following day.

The next day no one arrived. I called at 13:00 to enquire and was told to call back at 14:00 because they could only investigate the matter from 14:00 because then it could be conclusively established that no one had arrived. I called back at 14:00, armed with the irrefutable knowledge there was no engineer at my house. I was shunted for 45 minutes between different departments, as they endeavoured to verify that indeed someone had not arrived. I was told to call back at 18:00 to check if someone could come the following day.

During the 18:00 call, which lasted a mere 20 minutes, it was established that someone might appear the next day. I was told to call at 9:00 the following day to confirm. I called at 9:00 and, after 25 minutes, was told an engineer was not available. As I wrote this article, it was still unclear whether the connection would be repaired.

Having said all this, I do not like to complain about call centres. Complaints in the UK and Ireland about call centres often have protectionist undertones that border on racism. Cursing foreigners for stealing Western jobs is a national pastime, even though only 5,5% of all jobs lost across Europe in the first quarter of 2007 were because of work being sent abroad, according to the Work Foundation.

That said, there clearly is a problem with call-centre outsourcing. How anyone can call the debacle I have been through ‘efficient’ is beyond me. It does, however, suggest that Indian workers are being paid so poorly that using 45 minutes to establish someone is not going to make an appointment is value for money for the employer.

This highlights the real issue, which is the exploitation of call-centre workers by multinationals and the brazen neglect of customers who, they know, have no option but to call repeatedly to resolve their issue.

This is not to say I oppose outsourcing – it has benefits. The West is naive to think the help desk is the flailing pinnacle of the outsourcing revolution. Outsourcing other services, such as software development, is big business. India’s high-tech sector is growing at 30% a year, largely because of outsourcing. It is not just cheap labour that is attracting business to the developing world, but the brain power in countries such as India and China. There are lessons in this for South Africa.

That said, as much as I like to see the developing world winning business from the West, we have to be aware of its price. I shudder to think of the mental impact on call-centre workers who spend each day getting an earful from people like me millions of miles away. Surely, there is a better way that could benefit worker and customer alike. If you want me to explain how this could be done, then call me between 9:00 and 21:00 during weekdays, press 1 to hear more about option 2, or press 2 to hear more about option 1, and when the frustration really sets in, press the hash key.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 August 2007. To comment on this article click here.