(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY In all recent election years -- and most of the time between -- "exporting American jobs" has been a hot-button issue. We all know the standard arguments, some of which are valid and supported by facts, many of which are not. And regardless of position on the topic, most understand (if not accept) the reality of our transition from a manufacturing- to service-based economy.
So if we are becoming (or are already) a service-based economy, why do we continue to export the most important service of them all, and one for which Americans are best qualified? Of all the service jobs that can and should be kept here, customer service is at the top of the list.
This is not the start of a xenophobic diatribe -- there are plenty of those to go around. I support globalism, and as one who has spent plenty of time doing business in developing nations, I respect and appreciate the desire and right of other human beings to better themselves. I manufacture products in Asia, and haveabout the many myths and misconceptions Americans have about "offshoring" and its impact. At the same time, I am a proud American employer (contrary to jingoistic ranting, "patriot" and "importer" are not mutually exclusive), and I absolutely believe that no job should be shipped off if it can be done better, cost-effectively, at home.
And therein lies the rub: Too many American companies -- typically large corporations -- believe that it can't be done cost-effectively here, because they view it through too narrow a lens. Looking only at their beloved "metrics" (FCST, AHT, NCO, SVL, or whatever), the data crunchers can prove beyond doubt that an offshore representative can handle more calls, in less time, for less money. But those who understand the true nature and benefit of great customer service know that the efficiency/productivity model is a house of cards. The bean-counter approach is like buying half-priced laser eye surgery: Looks good now, but in the long run it will probably prove to be a lack of vision (I'm entering a metaphor contest this month).
Customer service is not manufacturing: Unlike circuit boards, toys or blouses, a provider in another country can't offer an identical product of the same quality at a better price. We all know call center horror stories and anecdotes -- entire articles, books and websites have been written about them, and we all have stories and experiences of our own. The fact is, in the vast majority of cases, it is not possible for someone native to another country, culture, and commercial environment to provide exceptional personal service, no matter how well-intentioned or intensively trained he or she may be.
Exported service creates divides -- from idiomatic speech to sociological awareness and sensitivity (in both directions) that are simply too wide to bridge. A wonderful, eager and motivated worker in Bangalore has as much of a chance at giving me the highest possible level of service as I do giving it to someone in Beijing (presuming I spoke Mandarin). I'm really good at customer service, I've spent a ton of time in China, and I like to think I know how to work well with people there. But I could never put myself in the shoes or mind of that customer, and without that ability, extraordinary service isn't possible.
On top of the interpersonal and cultural hurdles, by definition, the needs and science of running an efficient call center preclude anything close to what a truly great customer service organization would consider great customer service. At best, basic business can be transacted and straightforward problems solved, but no customer is ever going to be "wowed." Most people have probably had some acceptable, or even satisfactory, interactions with offshore call centers, but the experience is more likely to frustrate and alienate people than it is to create delighted, adoring, vocal, and loyal fans. And that's where the call center value proposition falls apart.
Applying a mass production mentality to service -- and that is exactly what we're talking about -- and preventing the possibility of like-minded people having, takes a "per incident" view of the customer relationship. It does not factor in the long-term value of that relationship, which every enlightened business knows is the ultimate reward for great service. To continue my obsession with metaphors this week, it is rent versus equity: You might save some money and get a roof over your head for the month, meeting your basic needs, but you're building nothing for yourself. The short-term benefits almost never pay off in the long run.
By some estimates, between India and the Philippines (the two largest call outsourcing countries) alone, there are more than three-quarters of a million call center employees servicing (more accurately, "dealing with") American customers. Add other countries, and it is reasonable to assume that number hits seven digits, which roughly equals or exceeds ten percent of our average national unemployment figure. And though not every American is cut out for great customer service either, I think it's safe to say that enough of them are to fill those million-plus jobs, and to the commercial benefit of the businesses that hire them.