• United States

Virtual call centers fight to keep jobs in the U.S.

Feb 25, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Industry leaders cite better quality of service and national security concerns

These days, firms with call centers looking to outsource all or part of their support have three options: Hire a brick-and-mortar call center outsourcer such as TeleTech; contract with an overseas firm that has a similar facility in a country like India with an English-speaking, educated workforce; or partner with a virtual outsourcer that employs home-based agents such as Alpine Access, Willow CSN, ARO and Working Solutions.

Often, the choice comes down to money. Overseas outsourcers use cheap labor, offering a better deal than U.S. firms. To compete, virtual call center firms emphasize high-quality service. Their workers are more mature, better educated and often licensed in various disciplines, such as insurance. Some in the industry aren’t shy about underscoring the political and economic ramifications of sending U.S. jobs overseas. Others think the issue is overhyped.

Jack Heacock, a call center consultant and a director of the Telework Coalition, sites quality of service and national security as prime concerns. “While overseas providers claim transparency, and no doubt lower cost per agent hour, they cannot possibly provide the quality American agents provide, nor can they upsell as well,” Heacock says. Moreover, “giving foreign nationals access to U.S. corporate information assets, their customers’ personal information, transaction data and corporate commercial processes – in a time when terrorists are looking to gain better intelligence to hurt the U.S. – are we setting our economy up for another punch in the nose?” he adds.

Tim Houlne, CEO of Working Solutions, a virtual outsourcer that boasts 16,000 home-based contract employees, says the overseas market is “labor arbitrage.” But he’s also seen it dip since Sept. 11.

“There’s a lot more hype now,” he says. “India, or the Philippines, or wherever – it’s not going to be the end all. You have to look at your investment in bringing the call center up to speed. If it takes you two calls to solve a problem, does that really solve the problem? Do you abandon customer loyalty because of a dialect or cultural issue? When you look at the true ROI of using a U.S. virtual call center vs. one overseas, telework starts to prove itself,” he says.

Mike Betzer, CEO of hosted call center services firm Ineto, which has clients overseas and in the U.S., points out firms get what they pay for when outsourcing. “If [an outsourcer], for instance, gets an account with a large company at a high rate, they’ll provide great service. But if they get another account, say with price-conscious Dell, at a lower rate, they’ll either suck it up to keep the Dell business or provide second-class service, from how the business is managed, who’s overseeing it and how reports are provided.”

All in all, Betzer thinks the migration of jobs overseas is temporary. “With any new business opportunity, the pendulum swings too far. When IVR [interactive voice response] came along, everyone said, no more agents. Then came e-mail, and everyone said customers will stop using the phone. Then came the Web, and everyone said, customers will just help themselves. In time, this will all balance out, and we’ll all be more competitive for it.”

Even so, Heacock wonders whether the U.S. shouldn’t impose tariffs on overseas call centers, “to better balance the playing field and protect both the U.S. economy and information privacy.”