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Outsourcing Outrage

May 24, 2007

In her 23may07 column, Outsourcing Outrage, Kathleen Parker explains why it’s OK for Americans to be rude to people who work for outsourced call-centers:

Don’t get me wrong. I love all peoples great and small, but I do not want to talk about my bad Internet connection with someone in Bombay named Kapil pretending to be Karen.

Well how devious of that person to land a coveted job with a call center, listening to you in the middle of her night, complaining about the awful fact that she wasn’t lucky enough to be born American. 

Anglicizing names is one of the tricks of the trade these days as more and more customer services are outsourced to other countries where call-center operators are grateful for $200 a month and an air-conditioned workspace. Invariably polite, and no doubt qualified, they are, nonetheless, not here.

Well that’s the whole point of a telephone; it lets you talk to people who are somewhere else.  And You know why they bring in voice trainers and anglicize their employee’s names, Kathleen?  Because Americans like you freak out if their tech-support dollar provides five jobs in India instead of one job in America. 

But if you pay five times as much for tech support, you’ll freak out even more.  You can’t have it both ways. 

Most people probably assume they’re talking to a recent immigrant, only to realize that the person telling them that their charging privileges have been suspended is in Manila. Once this realization sets in, apparently, Americans can become unpleasant.

That is putting it mildly

In India, a television sitcom—“The Call Center’’—was created around calling centers and their rude Western customers. Note to world: We weren’t always so rude. We weren’t always on the verge. Corporate America has made us this way.

That human being on the other end of the line did not create your situation, Kathleen.  If you are rude to a pleasant, qualified person who is just trying to make a living, you’re being a jerk.  It’s no use blaming “corporate America” for your bad manners.

Deep in our star-spangled hearts, we know that Arjun—good fellow though he may be—doesn’t really care about us. It’s a safe bet he may not even like us.

Thus, the corporate insult of hiring foreigners is compounded by the pandering of passive-aggressive non-Americans. Between robots and foreign operators—and the powerlessness most consumers feel—American business has robbed its citizen-customers of their dignity.

If an unsatisfactory conversation with a polite, qualified person is all it takes for you to act without dignity, you didn’t have any to rob.  Maybe Arjun doesn’t like you or really care about you as a person, but it has obviously been too long since you worked in the service industry.  If you ever did.

…[My tipping point] came a few days ago while in the North Carolina mountains trying to get Internet service. After two days on the phone with Charter Communications operators in three countries (U.S., Canada and the Philippines), trying to solve a local Internet-access problem, I wondered why homicide rates aren’t higher.

Finally, the “customer service’’ operator who said she was in the Philippines determined that I needed an on-site technician—what a concept!—but I’d have to wait 36 hours. I noted humorously (I thought) that a Charter tech was probably within a few miles of me, yet someone in the Philippines is saying he can’t get to me for a day and a half.

Yeah, I bet that was real funny.

At that precise moment, no kidding, a burly mountain man rapped at the door: “Are you Ms. Parker? I’m from Charter Communications and I’m here to fix your modem.’’ Well, hallelujah and hit delete. I wanted to hug the guy. Love the accent. Love the all-American, gung-ho, can-do attitude.

“Philippines, we’re done.’’ I said to the nice lady on the other end.

You’re a constant flag-waver, Kathleen Parker, so you wanna do something good for your country?  Treat people in other countries like human beings.  Yes, you know you’re talking to someone in Manilla, but don’t forget they know they’re talking to someone in America. 

Categories: observations
  1. May 25, 2007 at 08:36 | #1

    Wow, what an ass.  I wonder how many people really treat the outsourced service people this badly?

    I had a call where I had to deal with “Nick” (thick Indian accent) for my Compaq.  But I wasn’t ever pissed at Nick, it wasn’t his fault.  I was just pissed at Compaq for screwing up my laptop.  As I now state, “I b****ed so much I got an American.”

    Thing is though I really didn’t have to complain that much, I just kept asking to speak to someone that could get me what I wanted.  Finally the American said there was no one else to talk to, which I’m sure was a lie.  But whatever he helped me.

    The difference though, between me and Kathleen was I only complained about Compaq.  Never about the fact I was speaking to an Indian.  I have more respect for humans than that.

  2. zilch
    May 25, 2007 at 08:43 | #2

    Hey, why not let off a little steam at the Indians and Filipinos?  You’ll feel better, and everyone hates the Americans already anyways…

  3. Ted
    May 25, 2007 at 09:57 | #3

    While, I agree with you on the basis of respect for the basic value of people, it is also useful to take a look at some of these people that are livid.

    There is no excuse for outright abuse, but there is a point to the workers that feel they are being used as a ping-pong ball by forces outside their control. The common answer is retraining, but I don’t think that people appreciate the difference between training and education.

    For example, economists and business interests commonly carry on about pro-market benefits and how supply and demand are the arbiters of efficiency so intervention is unnecessary. Yet, when employers refuse to pay localized market rates for a well educated workforce and then belabor the fact that well-educated workers can’t be found here, there is that element of bullsh*t.

    It is insulting to have Louis Gerstner lecture us on the abysmal state of American’s failure to grasp the value of science and technology, when neither he nor his buddies support allowing the market to efficiently support an increase of graduates in science and technology by paying them properly. In fact by his actions, he was a pioneer in telling people that science and technology was a waste of time for a large segment of the technical population.

    In short, if we allowed the market to work as is articulated, wages would support the notion that science and technology are worthy endeavors. When we reach overseas to adjust the market because we can pay the workers there less, we prove the point that a global excess of labor diminishes incentive to support science and technology among our own structure.

    I find this topic difficult because in a perfect world, we should treat outsourced and offshored labor with dignity and equality, but nationalism, the artificial social groupings that are defined by borders and laws, do not really allow for that.

    There’s a great dissonance that we need to endure. It’s surprising that our brain’s just don’t explode under the contradictions that we’re told are perfectly normal.

  4. james old guy
    May 25, 2007 at 11:02 | #4

    I must take exception to the qualified part of the statement, the ability to read from a script does not qualify anyone for much of anything. I will agree it is tastelss to be rude to these people and also a waste of time, they are just trying to make a living. I would not want to guess how many people are actually extremely rude to these poor employee’s but I suspect most people just hang up and bang their head against the wall.  When we stop buying from companies with poor customer support then maybe the outsourcing solution to the bottom line will be looked at.

  5. Lucas
    May 25, 2007 at 15:25 | #5

    I don’t really use technical support all that often, but I think that the (presumed) Indians or other foreigners I’ve talked to have been quite helpful and polite.  To be honest, my (limited) recent experience with phone tech support is quite a difference from my (much more extensive) experience with phone tech support in the nineties.  For the “convenience” of talking to Americans then, I frequently had a 15-60 minute wait to talk to someone.  Also, people were generally ruder to me.

    I’ve known a few people who have worked tech support/telemarketing/debt collection jobs, and *they all hated it*.  None of them worked at these jobs longer than a month, despite the fact that they paid substantially better than most other jobs that were available.  I saw a news program recently which profiled one call-center company in Bangalore, which had a waiting list of *1200 job applicants*.  I don’t think that the loss of these sorts of jobs was really that big a loss, and from my experience they have been a boon to *users* of these services.

  6. May 25, 2007 at 16:32 | #6

    I’m always polite to tech support agents no matter where they might be located, though I’ll admit that it’s a little bit harder when they give me the runaround or assume that I’m an idiot. Occasionally I’ve had to hang up or ask to be transferred to someone else when I absolutely could not tell what the person was saying to me because of a thick accent—but that’s about as annoyed as I get.

  7. May 25, 2007 at 20:20 | #7

    “I find this topic difficult because in a perfect world, we should treat outsourced and offshored labor with dignity and equality, but nationalism, the artificial social groupings that are defined by borders and laws, do not really allow for that.” 

    This points up one thing that is troubling in the in the US, (if not every other culture, I can only speak of what I know) … and that is the convenience of playing “victim” to one’s circumstances, to one’s environmental conditioning.  If we remain STUCK in such a state, there is very little hope of peace.  Strife and conflict are built on such tiny little things, which eventually and too often metastasize.

  8. May 26, 2007 at 11:07 | #8

    This is a teensy bit off-topic, but two glasses of Austrian red will have its say:  did you know that “outrage” has nothing to do with “rage”, etymologically?  It’s from French “outre”, ultimately from Latin “ultra”, meaning “beyond”, as in “beyond the pale”.  Just a little note from your friendly neighborhood amateur etymologist.

  9. Ted
    May 27, 2007 at 12:12 | #9

    his points up one thing that is troubling in the in the US, (if not every other culture, I can only speak of what I know) … and that is the convenience of playing “victim” to one’s circumstances, to one’s environmental conditioning.  If we remain STUCK in such a state, there is very little hope of peace.  Strife and conflict are built on such tiny little things, which eventually and too often metastasize.

    Kevin Drum has a wee bit of insight on some of this.

    Thomas Jefferson, for example, kept slaves because it was, after all, a rational thing to do. He needed the money his slaves brought in and he was too weak-willed to forego that money and free them. However, he also argued that slavery was wrong and should be banned — a position that’s usually presented as an unfathomable paradox. But it’s not. Jefferson wanted slavery banned because he understood that individuals often lack the willpower to do individually what they know is right. Sometimes it takes the power of community action to force ourselves to do good things that we can’t (or won’t) do on our own.

    In the marketplace we are competitive, selfish, meanspirited, and xenophobic, so it’s no surprise that left to its own devices that’s the kind of society a free market will produce — in fact, has produced at various points in history. But although we’re seldom strong enough to personally sacrifice our own immediate economic self-interests (yes, that means you too), we often recognize as a society that we ought to do better. And so, as long as the rules apply to all of us, we occasionally allow our better natures to be shamed, cajoled, or inspired into insisting on it. And civilization slowly progresses because of it.

    We just need to have a little social help to get out of the victim of circumstance self-view, and when we see that window for right action swing open, we need to be ready to jump through it. Hopefully, not to our death.

  10. May 27, 2007 at 18:30 | #10

    That’s disturbing and embarassing. I have nothing else to add…

  11. May 28, 2007 at 02:07 | #11

    Thanks for the link to Drum, Ted.  An interesting article and discussion.

  12. May 28, 2007 at 07:45 | #12

    I don’t object to outsourcing, provided that the people I end up talking to speak English clearly enough that I can understand them.  I get extremely frustrated when I can’t make out what the person in Malaysia or Bombay or wherever is saying because their English skills are substandard.  Granted, they speak English better than I speak whatever their native language might be (depending on where they are), but I’m not getting paid to help them.  They might have the technical skill to program a computer to do a tap dance on the desktop; this matters not at all if they can’t communicate to me how to make it stop rebooting itself every 45 seconds. 

    This phenomenon is not confined to tech support.  Many of the people that I deal with in my job are overseas where corporations have outsourced their accounts payable and receivable functions. So if the customer hasn’t paid his bill, I get to call and talk to someone who I can’t understand (and who probably can’t understand me and my Southern drawl) to find out why not and when I can expect payment.

  13. May 28, 2007 at 08:28 | #13

    That’s a really good point, that an obligation to communicate falls on everyone in business, regardless of where they are.  I actually take handwriting into account when I hire student workers, because they’re always leaving notes for each other and for us.  I don’t care if they use script or print, or what style, as long as it’s easily readable. 

    Southern drawl is much easier for me to understand (lived in Tennessee for 7 years) than some Northern urban dialects.

  14. zilch
    May 28, 2007 at 10:21 | #14

    Just because Southern drawl is easier for you to understand doesn’t mean it’s true.

  15. microserf
    May 31, 2007 at 12:09 | #15

    More information regarding this subject:


    Also, check out the FAQ title: Outsourcing and Globalization

    I don’t believe all call centers are in India; companies keep a handful of them in the USA for backup. The best part about talking to an Indian is hanging up on him, redialing, and getting to talk to an American.  By the way, is anyone nice to telemarketers?

    The really sad part is that in a country of over a billion people, if someone quits, another person would immediately take his/her place.

  16. Steve
    June 5, 2007 at 15:14 | #16

    Brings a whole new meaning to the term “Ugly American”, doesn’t it?  I don’t think contacting call centers halfway around the world are what William Lederer and Eugene Burdick had in mind, but now we don’t even need to travel to be arrogant, loud and pretensious bastards.

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