THE lengths to which companies will go to avoid drawing the right conclusions in favour of the self-serving and expedient never ceases to amaze. A spectacular - and sad - example was highlighted in an article in this paper last week ('Indian call staff quit over abuse on the line'), 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 centres, in some cases touching 60 or 70 per cent a year. Some organisations were employing psychiatrists and counsellors 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 centres, too. Does that cause a dim light to go on somewhere? It should. The important thing is nothing to do with where the call centre 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 colour of the person we're talking to,' says Professor Harry Scarbrough, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Evolution of Business Knowledge pro gramme. 'But we do care about being fobbed off with people working to a script. Call centres 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 centres, 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 centres their sweatshop reputation and harming competitiveness rather than improving it.
The problem starts with the distance of the call centre from the rest of the organisation, 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 centres 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.
'The distance is induced by the organ isation, not geography,' says Scarbrough. Offshoring the call centre is a perfect symbolic statement of the peripheral importance of customer concerns versus production efficiencies. The factors are compounded many times over by the way call centres are internally designed and managed.
The 'sweatshop' analogy is well-founded. Vanguard notes that the measurements on which staff are judged are equivalents of the time-and-motion measures used in factories pilloried by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times . Time to answer the phone, time spent on calls, numbers of calls per hour are derived from the need to meet production targets set by management rather than from the purpose of serving the customer.
The result is a double alienation, of both employees and customers. 'It's very routinised, high-surveillance work,' says Scarbrough of the Economic and Social Research Council. 'There's low motivation in skill and small rewards, backed up with the big stick: surveillance and controls applied through technology.'
Under the new-fangled (often excessive) technological facade, what's happening is actually a long-hallowed configuration. Aided by technology, com- panies are going offshore to play the low-cost production option. But in services they still haven't twigged that it is quality rather than quantity or price that's important and quality, just as it does in manufacturing, requires reversing the whole cycle of production, starting from the customer, not the output target.
Meanwhile, the remedies proposed for the Indian call centres will, like most 'best practice', make matters worse. Call-centre workers don't need psychological counselling or anger-management courses they need a better system and, failing that, a tough trade union.
As for letting staff hang up on abusive customers, as some firms are doing - one entirely sympathises, but it's so far from approaching the underlying issues that it's hard to know where to start.
As the costs of the customer revolt begin to mount, companies will eventually have to rethink their low-cost production logic. But sadly it is too late to stop the export of their nineteenth-century management principles, which cause vast amounts of alienation, exploitation and needless misery to emerging countries - truly worst practice.
As Scarbrough says, given the low-skill, low-value of the jobs created in India on one side and the destructive hidden costs for customers and companies on the other, offshored call centres may be a remarkable example of an international exchange, freely entered into, that benefits neither party: 'That's quite rare.'
The Observer, 5 June 2005