The Thorny Cultural Thicket of Outsourcing, Part 2

Many Americans have come to dread hearing a foreign accent when a customer service representative comes on the line, assuming that such agents will be ill-equipped to help them. In fact, asPart 1 of this two-part series notes, many would rather speak to someone blatantly rude or condescending than to a person whose English inflection differs from their own.

While companies outsource more and more for the benefits involved, customer resistance seems to be intensifying, and the cultural gap may be growing wider instead of narrowing.

Dell made headlines a few years ago with the announcement thatit was bringing its Indian-based contact center operations back to the United States because of customer complaints of poor service. Since then, however, apparently unable to resist the lure of cost benefits, the company has sent additional operations — including, yes, a contact center — to India.

That earlier image of Dell pulling out, though, has become an oft-cited illustration of the problems a firm can experience when spinning off its business processes to a third party located in a different country.

To be sure, there will always be glitches in anoutsourcing relationship — but companies are learning that these problems may not be as difficult to solve as they initially may seem.

Don’t Blame the Obvious

For starters, firms must ditch the concept that customer complaints arise from superficial or surface reasons such as having to converse with someone with an accent, says Patrick Morrissey, senior vice president of Savvion.

“Ultimately, if a problem gets solved, then the customer doesn’t care where therep is located,” he tells CRM Buyer. Too often though, the problem that prompted the consumer to call into a center cannot be solved by the rep, because he or shedoes not have the necessary information, or the company has not mapped or provided enough guidance to its processes.

“It doesn’t matter if the outsourcer is based inRussia or an Eastern European country or India,”Morrissey says. “The real question is, does it haveaccess to customer records, to the processes?”

It may be that the company does not provide suchaccess because, well, the processes or customerdatabase — at least in consolidated form — simply donot exist.

“One of the fundamental challenges of outsourcing –leaving aside the cultural factor — is that companiesoutsource processes that they are either not good atperforming or are not core to their operations,”Morrissey says. “Then the company decides that sinceit doesn’t want to invest the resources to betterdevelop these processes, it will outsource them — orworse, pieces of them — instead.” Not all companiesapproach outsourcing in this fashion, he adds.Companies deploying best practices in outsourcing,though, tend to be fewer than perhaps expected.

Many firms are novices at this and still makebeginners’ mistakes, agrees Jonathan James, vice president of Syntel, anoutsourcing company with operations in India.

Forrester Research talks about penetration rate of 10percent to 15 percent for the global delivery ofservices,” he tells CRM Buyer. “The GEs of the worldand their outsourcing strategies may get the headlines,but there are still a lot of organizations launchingpilots.” Syntel, for instance, “just signed a dealwith a large insurance company last week. This is itsfirst exposure to a global model.”

A definition of the process — starting from whichdivision or unit “owns” it in the organization toidentifying the roles each employee and/or theoutsourcer must play to detailing procedures toescalate an issue up the corporate hierarchy — is theessential first step any company that outsources aprocess must take, Morrissey says. “Once that is inplace, you can hand it over to the outsourcer. And whenyou do — make sure you establish specific metrics andservice levels they are required to meet ahead oftime.”

Acknowledge the Cultural Divide

Of course, there will clearly be a cultural dividebetween a workforce in India or Argentina or Russiaand one in the United States. Once the fundamentalshave been established — the who, what, where, when andwhy of the business process that has been outsourced –then companies can address the cultural issues. Thegood news is that this piece is the easiest to handle.

“You definitely want to think about culturaltraining,” James says. “Oftentimes, the client doesn’tknow how much training it needs until it gets into aproject like this.”

Syntel, for instance, offers videos explaining thedifferences in work cultures — as a first step. Italso encourages the client company to bring theoutsourcer’s project management teams to theheadquarters, and vice versa. Once he meets thesegroups, he says, he tries to identify the person mostexcited or invested in the project. “Focus on thoseindividuals and make them ‘project ambassadors’representing each team,” he advises.

It is equally important tochoose an outsourcer that is a cultural fit with theorganization, says Martin Migoya, CEO ofGlobant, a provider of software development andrelated services in Argentina. This is a rule of thumb for any businesspartnership — but one that is oftenoverlooked when outsourcing across borders, he tells CRM Buyer. It is safe to say that partnershipsbetween laid-back companies and firms whose managementstyle is buttoned-down usually don’t work.

Most clients put Globant on a short list of prospectsbecause of its open source technologies focus, hesays. The most successful relationships it has formedwith customers, though, tend to be with firms that arealso attuned to Globant’s cultural work style, whichhe describes as proactive and energetic.

All that said, aknee-jerk reaction against outsourced operations still exists in some quarters.Companies that do outsource processes need to beprepared to defend their decisions, Michael DeSalles, an industryanalyst with Frost & Sullivan, tells CRM Buyer. “Iadvise clients to be ready to do a better job oftelling their side of the story if and when a criticpops up,” he says.

That may be easier than one would think, Morrisseysays. “You ask most people what they want in a workenvironment, and they will tell you that they want tobe surrounded by smart coworkers, and that [they want] their work[to be] meaningful.” In this context, outsourcing becomes atool for success, he says.

The Thorny Cultural Thicket of Outsourcing, Part 1

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