In a new book, The Pro-Growth Progressive, Gene Sperling, a former economic advisor to President Bill Clinton, recalls what students at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore initially understood when he met with them in 2003. Sperling writes that the students thought he was referring to outsourcing jobs to Africa and to poorer regions of India.
He then points out another development that might seem counterintuitive to many Americans, which is that an Indian company, namely the business process outsourcing arm of the IT services firm MphasiS, opened a call center in Mexico to serve Spanish-speaking customers in the U.S.
The two examples from Sperling's book challenge several assumptions that a lot of Americans have about outsourcing. One is that America is the only place from which call center jobs could conceivably migrate; another assumption is that call center jobs move to and not from India.
But globalization isn't a simple matter of one region gaining jobs at the expense of another. Its effects are both positive and negative for consumers and workers worldwide. The good news about globalization is that there are more consumers to compete for; the bad news is that there are more workers to compete with.
Call centers exemplify the impact of technological innovation, as well as forces of globalization that historically accompany such innovation. As Sperling points out, the changes new technology and globalization bring about aren't restricted to wealthier nations in North America and Europe. "Even countries that are often accused of robbing American jobs face constant price pressure from new technologies and even lower-cost nations," he writes. "Advances in natural language speech recognition software are already responsible for automating many Indian call center jobs."
When we consider automation and globalization in the context of service, we have to ask ourselves if these trends will help companies retain customers and help these companies' call centers retain agents.
Let's first consider automation. The dot-com boom coincided with a drive among companies to consolidate facts about customers. The premise of customer relationship management was that companies would understand customers better if their departments all shared information they had about them.
The problem with this premise is that if you only know facts about customers – what they buy, where they live and what they say they do for fun – you only gather information about what customers can do for your company. But if you listen to customers' conversations with agents, you can gather insights into what companies can do for the people they serve. Although conversations may seem to be less structured than customers' demographic data, they represent customers' needs more accurately than the data alone.
Now let's move on to the issue of globalization. Listening to customers' conversations, provided it's actually an option in each of the countries where call centers are located, has significant implications in a global economy. A company's ability to evaluate its service from its customers' perspectives will become increasingly important, especially as the company attempts to attract consumers who speak a wide variety of languages and come from a wide range of cultures. Yet although customers may have to adjust their notions about where agents ought to be located, they shouldn't have to lower their expectations of service.
It will be a welcome development if international standards for call center service become widespread, and if customers' evaluations emerge as a key part of these standards. Innovations in call monitoring, such as automated post-call surveys that occur immediately after customers speak with agents, will help call centers gather feedback – and learn – from customers.
In themselves, standards won't be enough to change economic forces that globalize competition for customers and among workers. What standards can do is to encourage companies to listen to customers so that they can better develop the people who spend the most time communicating with customers. The best way to invest in customers is to invest in the development of agents.