Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Outsourcing: Glory Days

There was a time when I sold out, left the comfy world of communications foot soldier -- a job for which I was woefully underpaid, but loved and petted -- to make big bucks as a manager. (Both big bucks and manager being relative terms.)

My newspaper wanted to enter the brave new world of outsourcing. And of course, when outsourcing, the first group thrown to the wolves would be you, me, we the customer, ie, customer service. And, for whatever reason, the powers under the powers under the powers-that-be, decided I'd be the one to parachute into places like Dogspit, Texas; Deadfish, Wisconsin; Brokentoe, Nebraska; Deadcat, Kansas; with an extremely small but experienced team to lead the charge.

This resulted in a nice title, and the pleasure of meeting, and bringing together a rag-tag army of farm boys and girls -- grade school dropouts mostly, with the IT crowd who hated them, and the local management team that dreamed, if all went well, of one day snagging a job in Witchita or Omaha. Oddly, I thought at the time and think so to this day, the farm kids may have been educationally and dentally challenged to the extreme, but they were on the vanguard of tats, purple hair, piercings, computers, and knew their way around a bottle of Prozac.

"Do what you have to do, but make it seamless," my betters said, and then washed their hands of the entire operation. Well, put that among my many accomplishments -- we showed no seams. Just giant gaping holes that a convoy of tractors could ride through without ever seeing, much less touching, either end of the fabric.

Our LA customers knew the moment, the very moment, we made the customer service switcheroo; the moment their call was answered by a boy or girl who had effectively never left the farm or talked to anyone more cosmopolitan than a clerk at the mercantile.

"I'd like to know my balance."

"Give me a sec. Why, no need to worry ma'am, you don't owe nuthin."

The customers hated the new customer service, the new customer service hated the customers, local managers hated the company management, and the company management hated me. Well, actually, now I'm being modest. Everyone hated me.

"I don't want to talk to Wisconsin," the subscriber base would scream, and flood the publisher's office plus national and international bureaus with outrage.

(Little did they realize, soon speaking to someone in Deadfish would seem like a long lost dream. They'd beg to speak to Wisconsin. Or anyone within the continental United States. But we showed them; yes, a scant few years later, we sent all their complaints to Manila.)

One time I had to do a 12-hour turnaround from Deadfish to Dogspit. We were suffering a massive PR fallout from a literacy campaign, our publisher's pet project, an idea he'd "borrowed" from another paper. The campaign solicited donations and featured photos of Keane-eyed kids, with captions that read, "HELP ME READ." with the P and D backwards. Most of the kids in the photos were brown and black. The blow back was so intense, we opened up an overflow call center in Dogspit. I had to script responses and train the crew. Unfortunately, half the crew couldn't read, so we spent afternoons trying to memorize all possible scenarios, responses.

Naturally, when the calls came in, everyone scuttled the script and decided to improvise, speak from the heart. I monitored one call. Our front line guy said, "Oh no, we're not saying only black children are illiterate. We have pictures of white people, too. Everyone should read, Purple people, orange people, green people..."

I ripped off the head phones and thought how much life sucks and wondered what sort of rotgut the bars serve in Dogspit, and how early.

35 comments:

  1. Wonderful, as usual. I'm putting a line from it on my FB page.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your Altadena NeighborOctober 22, 2014 at 4:45 PM

    OMG!!! Just last week I had an internet issue and was THRILLED because someone from Kentucky took my call.

    ReplyDelete
  3. These days, I'm happy if they know that Los Angeles is in California.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You've got that right, Neighbor. Although I've never encountered an overseas phone agent who couldn't speak English, they are too far from the center of the business to have leeway to help or stray from their script. I'm always glad to get someone in the home office, whether that's Arizona or Iowa or even Wisconsin.

    Karin, you've had some fun jobs. I love the names you came up with for these towns. I used to work as a travel router (yes I did) and we collected weird town names. Lipsy, AL is right by Humpsy, for example. And don't forget Little Pee Dee.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The two people I credit with keeping this Titanic and the other sinking ship of an IVR afloat are Vic and Kelly M. Vic because he could do IT magic, magic beyond comprehension; and Kelly M, because she'd come into my office with a clipboard full of problems she'd sorted and parsed, shut the door, and say, "Here are the questions, so what have you got?"

    ReplyDelete
  6. I just love this, especially the ending, with those colored people. I'm sure you were a great manager, but managing humans is worse than herding cats, and I never want to do it again, do you?

    ReplyDelete
  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Part of my job entails taking phone calls from disgruntled members of the public. I always think they are going to appreciate the facts that they weren't put on hold, didn't have to shout at a voice-activated menu, and get to speak to a live, native English-speaking college-educated human who will try to answer their questions and concerns. But they don't.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I hate those scripted calls.. nothing is worse than when I ask a question and they go straight to the script? and the scripted answer has no logical answer.. I guess companies are afraid that their employees may speak the truth? Outsourcing makes me cringe... I am tired of talking to India, and the Philippines.. hearing a U.S. voice makes me jump for joy until it goes to the scripted...

    ReplyDelete
  10. A friend of mine was telling me she know a wonderful woman from India, about 40, who's having a tough time finding a husband. I suggested she tell her friend to call Microsoft.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Can you delete my double entry, Karin? I guess I solved the number puzzle twice.

    I like to hear Filipino or Indian voices, and I ask them what the weather's like, where they live and such. Is it just a rumor that if you hear a strange American accent, you're often talking to a prisoner?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I like those Indian voices, too. I learned from my husband (who used to have a job soliciting charity donations over the phone) that if you start with things like "What's the weather like where you are?" and "You're just the genius I'm looking for!" most of the time you'll warm them up and get real help. Like Barbara, a lot of people want to help you. It's the company you're mad at, not the person.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Petrea, Broken Toe is my favorite. Bellis, no, I really don't like telling people what to do and I most especially don't like to tell them they're doing it wrong.

    Barbara, isn't it something? Maybe you should have a short automated intro that says something like, Please note we're not going to make you jump through any phone tree hoops or send your call overseas. You'll be connected to an on-site manager momentarily.

    Over on my Facebook page, my former director reminded me that when the calls first went to Wisconsin, the reps were so appalled by the rudeness of our customers that they started crying. Hundreds of them.

    KBF, I think the worst is when they're not able to help you but still end the call with the scripted "Anything else I can help you with."

    Earl, perfect.

    I've heard about the prisoner thing, too. If it is true, I hoope they're not allowed to take cc payments.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Very funny stuff, KB. I've lived in tiny towns and I can just see some of my former neighbors saying some of those things. Spot on.

    I'm fond of Two Egg, FL, as well as nearby Bagdad, FL, a former mill town.

    I have a hate hate relationship with AT&T. Over the years their service has been spotty at best and I guess they finally got tired of me noticing their lack of skills and gave me Uverse on the cheap. I thought this would be great but then a storm blew up the transformer two days later. I had to arrange the repair through a conversation with someone with an Indian accent who was reading from a script. She told me they couldnt't repair it because they already had a previous work order (the original which clearly hadn't been closed out). And yet, they were there to repair the system that afternoon. It pays to be persistent.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Back in the day, waaay back in the day, I was trained as a service rep by Ma Bell. That was when they took service very seriously You had to get the name and phone # correct first thing. Then you actually listened to what the problem was. From there I spent 10 years with TWA [told you it was back in the day] as a telephone rep. We had to know geography, to construct connecting routes to odd places [Swift Current, Saskatchewan was a favorite, no non-stops from SF]and to construct fares, all done from a book called the Official Airline Guide. Great fun when the SF airport was fogged in, snowstorms blew over Chicago and NYC froze over. We had to make nice to rude demanding passengers. I only hung up on one once. He was shouting how well the trains and everything else worked in Nazi Germany. No wonder that nowadays, I tend to get very impatient at non-customer service.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Meant to say customer non-service.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I have cousins in Strangled Rat, OK, who sound a whole lot like your friends in Dogspit.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Remember when they outsourced customer service jobs to prisoners? I think the travel industry took advantage of that route - pun intended.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Fascinating story. That job would have given me ulcers. Glad you survived to tell the tale ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Things seem the same here in Raccoon Timber.
    Another curse of this fricken technology age we're held hostage in.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I'm trying to think of any major company that doesn't cut customer service corners as close to the bone as possible, but nothing springs to mind. You'd think someone would dare to give it a try as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the herd.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Amazon.

    Especially CreateSpace. Amazing customer service.

    You'd think other companies would get the hint that it works.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Petrea, Little Pee Dee is a very nice river. It just sounds funny. I did enjoy Dug Gap, TN. It just sounds like what you'd find in Tennessee. Or Fish's Eddy, NY. It's a cold and crappy place, so they must have stayed for the good eats?

    As for customer service, Comcast always surprises me. And they always tell you where in the US they are, which is the biggest surprise. The worst phone tree is UPS, because no matter what you shout at the automated voice, it doesn't "get that".

    I think that there are too many people - a generation of them - who have been told that (a) they must go to college, and (b) they are too good for a job like telephone customer service. So instead the jobs go overseas and they sling fancy coffee, sporting a job descriptor that wasn't even a recognized word 30 years ago. And we wonder why our economy isn't really recovering.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Uh-uh, customer service didn't land overseas due to the lack of an applicant pool state-side. In general, it's purely a financial decision. Calls from existing customers are on the expense rather than revenue side of the ledger. So handle them the cheapest way possible. That would be, cheapest-to-expensive: Web, IVR (interactive voice response unit), cheap overseas labor, second-tier state-side group.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I always like to read your stories Karin! The way you narrate them is interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  26. They've gotten clever. I am never quite sure where the Citibank rep I am speaking with actually is. Her name is Zelda, or Wanda, or Mary. Hmmmm....

    We all love you never mind them.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Karin -- Working in management for a corporation is soooooooooo lovely, isn't it? You bring back memories of my own, and I guess you could write a book entitled (if Hunter Thompson hadn't thought of it first) Fear and Loathing in Yuppieland (or something like that).

    Outsourcing to cut the average pay to $0.00001 per hour reminds me of The Jungle.

    You nailed it.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Back atcha, Kenny Mac. And you're so right about the names. Usually the overseas folks cottoned to something movie-starish -- Miley might be popular these days. Brad and Johnny certainly were a few years ago.

    Hi John, I've been missing your photos. And yes, looked at from one angle, the web/ivr/off-shore model cut cs expenses for most companies by about 70 percent, though one could argue they lost big time in customer loyalty, which meant big bucks for re-acquisition. I dunno; I really don't have any confidence that American companies really thought this whole thing through. They were just all too excited about the initial 70 percent.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Those geniuses in the corner offices forgot that any business is in the business of customer service. Maybe there's an exception, but I can't think of any right now.

    Thanks for asking about the photos. More to come. Please keep writing. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  30. Hey John, I can't comment on your post. It won't recognize my name. I'll try again tomorrow.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I actually had a good customer service interaction with AT&T last week, although it started as anything but.

    I received a letter that they would be changing my "Pacific Bell Message Center" answering service to a new fangled one in December, but I could go to a web site or call a number and have it started sooner. It had some nice features, such as sending an email when someone left a message, so I decided to start right away.

    The web site didn't work, so I called and went through a phone tree, and finally got someone to switch the service. Then I went to a different website to configure my account, and couldn't sign in since I didn't have a password. The page said that the password would be in my "welcome letter". But I didn't have such a letter, and now all my messages would be going to this service which I couldn't access.

    I called the office which had changed the service, and they told me I had to call a different number. The people there gave me a temporary password, and I was able to access the account and change my password on the website. But I couldn't access the service via my phone.

    I called the second number again, and the woman gave me a new password, and then told me to set up my account via my phone, and check the website, and that she would call me back to make sure it worked.

    And miracle of miracles, not only did the new password work, but the agent called me back to make sure everything was working ok!

    ReplyDelete
  32. Coincidentally, I had a good experience with AT&T just yesterday. My broadband was down, so I connected and the library and used att chat. The problem was resolved and a different rep called me at home to confirm everything was working. How about that?

    ReplyDelete
  33. Yeah, once I was mad at AT&T so I tweeted about how awful they were. They contacted me via Twitter and took care of my problem immediately. That phone tree you endured sounds awful, Vic.

    ReplyDelete
  34. 8 AM? I don't doubt it for a second.

    ReplyDelete