Many stand-up comics use customer service incidents as material for their routine. People laugh because they can relate, having had similar issues. One of my favorites was from Jeff Foxworthy, he of the “you might be a redneck” fame. He once said, “I called and this guy said, “this is Kevin, may I help you?’ Kevin? I thought your name would have 2 fewer vowels than Kevin has…. Where are you, Kevin? ‘At my desk.’ Where’s your desk? ‘It’s in my office.’ OK, Kevin, if someone comes to your house riding an elephant, would that be weird or normal?” He’s kidding, of course, but he speaks to some nagging issues about the trend of outsourcing of customer service to other countries, most of them in East Asia.

I know people over there need jobs too. I also know the realities of economics make those people willing to work for maybe 10% of what most Americans would want to be paid, so companies see big savings. I’m not really mad at the companies either. They are just trying to make more money, which is the point of being in business to begin with. I just wish the companies sending these jobs elsewhere would demand a few basics that really don’t’ seem to be in place.

I’ve had 2 interesting interactions with these overseas call centers recently. Doing some work for my new client, I had to make a phone call to an airline to modify some things on a reservation I had made. While I know I can’t be absolutely 100% certain, I am fairly sure the person I was talking to was a female. The rep said, “My name is Joshua.” Well………. OK. I thought about Foxworthy’s joke and shook my head. I think everyone is aware the people working in these call centers are given lists of American names and they choose one to identify themselves with when they field a call. I’m not sure what purpose this serves. Do the companies think we are gullible enough to believe that if someone says “my name is Joshua” then we will never suspect we are talking to someone in India or Sri Lanka, but will believe we’re talking to someone 20 miles down the highway? Is it a genuine belief that if I hear an American name, I won’t give in to the temptation to treat the rep according to whatever negative stereotype I might have about this person? Hard to say, but I usually interpret it as an insult to my intelligence. Perhaps that’s something I need to work on. Whatever the reason or reaction, I’m already off on the wrong foot, because I know I’m being told something that is not true.

One other thing I wish outsourcing companies would write into the contract is to submit results of knowledge of English before a rep could take live calls. This reminds me of another joke by one of the Blue Collar Comedy crew, Larry the Cable Guy, who once said, “I wish they’d learn English.. Can you at least learn the word ‘sammich’?” One of the things I had to adjust on the flight call was the names on the reservation (I had not put one of the travelers’ full name when I booked online, which would have been a major problem for him at the TSA checkpoint). This was an extremely painful process with “Joshua,” who clearly struggles with the language. We eventually got everything ironed out, but it definitely wasn’t easy.

Experience #2 came with my web hosting service. I have my email address associated with my website added to my Outlook profile and read messages there. Something went haywire last week and I wasn’t getting new messages. I went to go into my web hosting service account, and had managed to forget my password. That’s a real problem, with the only way to reset the password being to have a link sent to the email address I can’t access. I ended up using their chat function, and eventually was told I needed to send an email to a specific address with my website address in the subject line, and in the body a different email address to attach to the account, and a copy of my photo ID. I did so, and waited for a response. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. After four days, I sent another email to that address. After a few more hours with still no response, I went back to the hosting site and did the chat function again, explaining again what happened. This rep must have had some pull, because within 5 minutes of the chat, the email I was waiting for arrived at my alternate email address. I was able to reset my password for the hosting service, then get into the email address I was having problems with and reset that password, and re-load it into Outlook. I wonder how long I would have had to wait if I hadn’t raised a stink about it after 4 days.

At the heart of all of this is, what is the perception of the customer? More and more, I think large companies view customers simply as revenue streams, and not as people. There are always more people, so if a customer doesn’t like the way you treat him/her, let them walk and go find more people. In the case of outsourcing, I think big companies are only interested in the cost savings of outsourcing and don’t really give much thought to how much harder it can make for customers to resolve problems. “We’ve got the customer’s money,” I believe they reason, “so anything after that doesn’t matter, at least not to us.”

Of course that is a terrible way to do business. When I’m on the other end – the one providing a service to the customer – I always try to keep in mind how I would feel if the service I am providing was being provided to me. When I make a mistake, the best thing that could happen is if I recognize it immediately and move to correct it. But if the customer discovers it first, hopefully they will point it out to me and give me a chance to correct it. I do my best to own my mistakes and not blame-shift, which is very easy to do. (Technology broke, someone did something terrible to me and distracted me, the wind changed direction, etc.  – all examples of not owning your mistakes.)

“If I were the customer, would I be OK with this level of service I’m providing?” Always a great question to ask when providing a service to others.