Saturday, November 22, 2008



I detest customer service centers. More generally, I do not even like most telephone calls. When I need to get "customer service" by telephone, I cringe with resentment and foreboding. If something goes wrong with a product I buy, I look for the dreaded 800 number, knowing full well that I will waste hours on hold for someone who ultimately will not help me in the end. For years, I simply resigned myself to this result. But in recent months, I discovered the truth about customer call centers: It's not about you; it's about the company.

Merchants sell goods. Goods sometimes fail. Merchants want to continue selling goods, and they know that angry customers will not buy from them if they had bad experiences with their goods in the past. For that reason, merchants want to produce at least the illusion that they care about their customers. But it is not practicable to spend time with every individual customer; that would eat into profit margins. How, then, can merchants appear to help their customers without sacrificing profitability? The Call Center. By providing an 800 number in product packaging, merchants can claim that they "care about the customer's experience" and "will do all they can to ensure that the product operates the way it is supposed to."

What happens when you call a "customer service center?" First, you will wait on hold. It would be economically prohibitive for a company to provide sufficient staff to handle every inquiry from every past customer concerning all its products. Second, when you do get through, you will hear a foreign voice, most likely an Indian one. Companies want to maintain the illusion that they care about their customers. But they are unwilling to take away their own time to speak to individual consumers. So they "farm out" customer service to third party companies in India that attempt to answer customers' questions. This makes economic sense for the company because it can pay the customer service clerks in rupees rather than dollars. Although Indian clerks may not give the same comforting assurances to American customers as American clerks, they cost much less. And every company wants to lower costs, because lower costs mean higher profits. Third, provided you can understand the clerk's dialect, you will be asked to answer dozens of questions about the product, where you bought it, what the problem is, how long you've had it, whether you've had past problems with it, whether you plan to buy another, etc. Fourth, if you have not yet hung up the phone, the clerk will read from a list of possible solutions to your particular problem. After all, the company cannot teach an officeful of Indians about the precise technical details of all their products; it makes much better economic sense to merely print a list of model numbers and a corresponding list of potential problems with potential solutions. That costs next to nothing. In the end, the company can claim that it cares about its customers, no matter how you actually feel.

All this may seem self-evident. But there is another purpose to the call center that may not seem apparent at first glance. From time to time I consult for law firms that represent huge companies. During one such engagement, I learned that companies use call centers for a much more significant reason than merely reflecting the "appearance of caring" about their customers. They also use call centers to gather information about common issues with their products. They want to know what people like about their products, what they don't like and what they'd like to see improved. Call centers, then, act as "information cauldrons" from which companies can scoop out lucrative ideas for new products. Companies can identify problems with products that they would not have noticed before, correct them, and begin designing new products that will satisfy annoyed customers. Companies go to great lengths to put together call centers that fulfill these purposes. They impose protocols on the clerks to make sure they get all the profitable information they can from customers. If they do not follow the protocols, they lose their jobs. Companies regard call centers as a significant investment in future profitability, not merely as gratuitous gestures to their customers. Nonetheless, they wrangle incessantly to hire low-cost call center staff. In virtually every case, their advisors tell them that American staff would be most qualified to obtain the information they want. And in virtually every case, the managers opt for India, because they do not want to pay American wages and withhold American taxes. True, they know that American customers prefer to talk to fellow Americans, but they do not really care about the customer's desires. They want to fulfill their own business purposes at minimal cost. If that means hiring Indians at 45 rupees per day, then so be it. Companies need human beings who speak English. Indians are the best buy.

Call centers reflect insidious commercial realities. They demonstrate the lengths to which companies go to delude customers into thinking they they "actually care," when in fact they merely want to use customers as information wells. They also demonstrate companies' relentless quest for lower costs, no matter what. Some may call the quest for lower costs "anti-patriotic" because no reasonable company wants to pay American workers American wages. But commerce has no national loyalties. The commercial spirit senses only profit and loss, and if hiring Indians means higher profit and lower loss, then Indians will be hired, even if they are baking American apple pies. To the commercial mind, numbers matter. That is why call centers operate they way they do. The next time you think to yourself: "Why don't they care about their customers enough to provide truly helpful staff who actually speak American English?" remember this: Companies could care less about your subjective impressions. You are speaking to an Indian in Bombay because it saves the company millions of dollars, while at the same time you are funneling priceless information to the company that it will transform into future profit. Your individual frustration with the process is a cost the company is willing to bear. It means nothing compared to the financial benefits it will gain from the information you provide.

In commerce, numbers matter, not feelings. Feelings only matter when they cause numbers to decline. As long as call centers allow companies to maintain their numbers, your frustration about call centers will do nothing to alter them.

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