Western Businesses that Delegate Work to Overseas Staff Should Make Their Practices Transparent
Call centers comprise one of the major arteries of the world economy today. If you consume a service, that service is likely supported by overseas call-center work. And, yet, consumers in rich countries know little about the lives of these call center workers who serve them from afar.
In fact, many Western companies work to hide that their support is rendered from overseas. That’s a big mistake. Such work has provided a substantial leg up for millions, and their story tells a positive and compelling narrative that demonstrates how globalization creates multilateral, cross-border benefits.
But when companies fail to tell that story and, instead, seek to obfuscate the identity of oversees workers, these workers are devalued, service quality suffers, and Western consumers falsely conclude that something is systemically amiss.
The faulty impetuses for perverse practices
There are three related, misguided drivers for companies deciding to hide their reliance on offshore work:
1) Domestic Worker Backlash
Companies fear that their outsourcing to overseas workers will compel customers at home to lash out in anger, believing they or their neighbors are being deprived of jobs. This idea is driven by the misconception that overseas outsourcing is a drain on local economies. The reality is that the net wealth creation created through distributed work and offshoring is well documented. A seminal McKinsey study, for example, illustrates how every $1 that gets offshored creates a $1.45 and that the majority of that new wealth gets funneled back to the outsourcing country.
Temporary worker dislocation is certainly a problem, and new wealth is often poorly distributed. But when angry Western workers scapegoat foreign call center workers they fail to channel the right pressure on their own elected officials. Their problems are rooted in the failures of extreme trickle-down economics, and not in systemic issues related to globalization.
Companies that benefit directly from outsourcing do not need to hide what they are doing to prevent angry domestic worker backlash. Instead, they need to help the public understand the overall benefits of globalization and work with policymakers to help better distribute wealth.
2) The False Perception of Harmful Exploitation
Companies fear the perception that they are wrongfully exploiting an inexpensive and defenseless labor pool. But there is nothing intrinsically exploitative about leveraging labor in emerging markets for services supporting people in the West.
In fact, such arrangements can and often do bring great benefits to offshore workers. By some accounts, the BPO industry has been directly responsible for helping to foster a 70% poverty reduction in the Philippines and for a 24% increase in the number of Philippine households belonging to the country’s middle-income bracket. BPO has created new jobs where there were few, increased the number of jobs offering a living wage, and catalyzed growth in industry and in local consumer demand.
More sophisticated BPO offers not just a first rung on the world economy for people who have traditionally been economically marginalized, it also offers an advanced education through exposure to the most dynamic economic environments in the world. As a result, workers who may a decade ago have been working for sustenance are quickly moving up Maslow’s hierarchy as companies, through their enlightened self-interest, work to foster a sense of employee mastery, autonomy, and meaning.
3) A Signal of Poor Customer Support
Companies seek to mask foreign names and accents in their call centers due to the perception that those qualities signal bad customer service. But astute service providers know that a foreign accent is no roadblock to great customer service. People in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles get great, in-person service every day from people with foreign accents living in their neighborhoods.
While customers may find that foreign accents on the phone signal bad customer service to come, such bad service comes from poor listening and not poor speaking. It is poor listening that leads to frustratingly scripted responses and non-sequitur answers to complex questions.
Good customer service rests on a foundation of good listening, fostered by informed context plus mastery of work and autonomy to make decisions. Companies that invest in this foundation of employee satisfaction can deliver amazing customer service from any city, state or country.
In other words, it is not the overseas location of customer service work that leads to poor service. When service is bad, it is the result of under-investment in training. Such under-investment will result in bad service, whether that service is rendered from Cebu in the Philippines or Casper, Wyoming in the United States.
Conversely, training programs that provides workers with enough context to understand the consumers they support and a work environment that empowers those same workers to resolve consumer issues will lead to good service from wherever that service is provided.
Western companies should embrace their overseas service workers and be transparent with their customer. They should better tell the overall positive story of globalization and invest to better empower offshore support staff with training.
Don’t Force Employees to Mask Their Identities
Delegating work to overseas workers can create benefits for both rich counties and for more challenged and less developed economies. The transnational nature of such work, however, makes it hard to regulate and easy to hide, a condition attractive for harmful exploitation. When companies force overseas workers to hide their identities, it makes them a target for dehumanizing treatment and diminishes customer trust.
Transparency is the best way to unleash great service, enhance the acceptance of overseas work and empower workers to advocate for themselves.
The Gritty Reality of Less Visible Call Center Workers
A University of Kent study based on 2019-2012 ethnographic research found that large percentages of foreign call center workers face almost daily abuse from customers in the U.S. and the U.K.
The researchers found that racial abuse is exacerbated by identity masking rules that prevent workers from revealing their real names, locations, or any other information that hints at their true identities.
Many Western companies work to hide that that their customer service agents are offshore. They want their customers to believe that they’re receiving local support even when they are not.
However, employee accents and vocabulary often reveal their international identities. When that happens, angry customers are known to berate workers to try to get them to reveal their true identities. A Hyderabad worker sited in the University of Kent study professed that ‘every time she would take a call, she would go to the washroom and cry. And then she would come back to take another set of calls.”
The harassment that customer service workers endure is a direct result of companies angering customers by misleading them into thinking they are receiving local support. Thus, everyone loses when businesses engage in such misleading practices.
Empower Employees with More Autonomy
A UN study on the global BPO industry found that, though BPO jobs pay well and can have reasonable working conditions per the standards of countries they exist in, one of the major characteristics they lack is employee autonomy.
In many centers, every minute of a worker’s day is strictly scheduled and they must get permission from their managers to do simple things like using the restroom and stretching their legs. The severe limitations on freedom combined with rigid performance metrics and the previously discussed triggers can make BPO jobs extremely stressful.
Following a policy of high transparency and focusing on healthy workplace management enhances businesses by empowering employees to advocate for themselves and for the causes they hold dear.
Despite the efforts of enlightened businesses and their managers, the dark side of offshore BPO still exists. A study on Indian BPO by Vardhman Mahavir Medical College in New Delhi found that BPO workers had depression and anxiety rates that are 58% and 38% higher than the average population.
Workers’ poor mental health is due to the extremely high levels of stress they face on the job. According to the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, the top triggers are:
- Customer harassment
- Excessive, repetitive work
- Challenging performance expectations
- Monotonous work
- The stress associated with night shifts
Many workers elect to work in stressful industries, so one might be inclined to show no more concern for BPO workers than they show for the stress associated with fire-fighting, law enforcement or other intense worker lives. But the transnational aspects of BPO coupled with the anonymity in which many workers are forced to operate makes it easy for companies to avoid investing in good working conditions.
The Benefits of Transparency and Autonomy
We at Prialto founded our offshore virtual assistant service model during the Great Recession when unemployment in the United States was climbing to 10%. Despite the potential backlash towards our offshore model, we followed a policy of complete transparency from the beginning. Our view has always been that in a hyper-connected world, there is little value created by simply connecting two people to work together, the way most other outsourcing service platforms do.
Our managed service model was created in contrast to simple labor marketplaces like Upwork or Craigslist, believing that curated labor combined with ongoing management and support based on learned best practices would create value for both our employees and our customers.
We believe that we need to add substantial value for both our customers in terms of saving management time and for our employees through training and development so that these two constituencies will wish to continue working through us instead of finding ways to work around us. If we ever fail to continue building value for both constituencies, we believe that we will deserve to be disintermediated. But if we do continue to invest in creating ever greater value, then all parties win by working through us.
In holding ourselves to this high standard, we also believe that we have nothing to hide about our business. From the beginning, we set out to legitimize our offshoring model. In fact, we help each of our new employees present themselves on LinkedIn. This obviously makes them easy to poach in the competitive war for talent inside the growing BPO industry, but we see that as simply keeping us on our toes.
We believe if we are adding value for our employees they will stay with us. And while a very few employees have used what we’ve taught them to hurt our business, the vast majority invest back into Prialto as we invest back into them.
This is why we have a firm policy on all employees using their real names or preferred nicknames and on celebrating instead of hiding where they are from. We know that we can honor their local culture while still teaching them the context of the hard-charging north American executives and business culture that they support
Companies wishing to do well must do good. There is a great opportunity for companies who are willing to invest in positive working conditions to attract the best workers and deliver exceptional service to their customers.