Sun, Jun 12, 2005 - Page 9 News List

When `best practice' is bad for business

The abuse of Asian telephone center staff by customers is symptomatic of corporate cock-up on a grand scale

By Simon Caulkin  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The lengths to which companies will go to avoid drawing the right conclusions in favor of the self-serving and expedient never ceases to amaze. A spectacular -- and sad -- example was highlighted in a recent newspaper article ("Indian call staff quit over abuse on the line," May 29, Observer, London), describing how increasing numbers of employees were abandoning their jobs because of abuse, often racist, from British and US customers.

According to the article, irate customers were a major stress factor contributing to rocketing turnover rates at Indian call centers, in some cases touching 60 or 70 percent a year. Some organizations were employing psychiatrists and counselors to help employees to cope. Their conclusion: anger and fear about offshoring were to blame. "When you move jobs away from a country, there's going to be a lot of pent-up frustration which gets let out on Indian workers," one analyst said.

There is zero excuse or tolerance for the kind of abuse documented in the article. But to blame the anger on racism and the effects of offshoring is to ignore the glaring fact that belligerent customers are a major stress factor for UK and US call centers, too. Does that cause a dim light to go on somewhere? It should. The important thing is nothing to do with where the call center is located; the important thing is that customers have had it up to here, everywhere, and the reasons are everywhere the same.

At bottom, companies are still producing to suit themselves rather than the customer. "We don't care about the color of the person we're talking to," says Professor Harry Scarbrough, director of the UK's Economic and Social Research Council's Evolution of Business Knowledge programme. "But we do care about being fobbed off with people working to a script. Call centers don't have the knowledge available in a local bank branch or shop. What customers get is knowledge that is pre-packed, shallow, mass-produced and inflexible.

People don't like that."

It was Albert Einstein who defined madness as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Tragically, but predictably, this is what is happening in India and elsewhere as supposedly advanced companies export toxic western management techniques to countries that can be excused for imagining that there is no alternative to what they are told is "best practice." "Best practice," of course (like "solutions"), is rapidly becoming a warning sign of meaninglessness or complacency ahead. And in the case of contact centers, charges John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting, conventional "best practice" is a large part of the problem, embedding in the work the very things that earned centers their sweatshop reputation and harming competitiveness rather than improving it.

The problem starts with the distance of the call center from the rest of the organization, metaphorically as well as literally. It ought to be the company's window on the world, a vital and sensitive two-way connection with customers; instead, all too often it is a bolt-on cost centre, a lowest-cost sponge for mopping up the mess of the initial product inadequacy. As such, it has no influence on, and therefore precious little chance of changing, the conditions that caused the customer aggro in the first place.

So most call centers start off with high stress factors -- angry customers and lack of influence over the problems they deal with every day -- built into their workload. This is the company's fault, not the customer's.

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