Outsourced – The TV Show

I must admit – I don’t watch much television. I just don’t have the time these days.

However, I did find some time the other night where my wife and two kids had some down time and started watching an NBC show. During one of the breaks, I saw a preview for a new show for NBC’s fall lineup – Outsourced. The trailer itself looked hysterical to me and the concept interesting. So, I did a little research on it.

According to NBC’s site, the show is about "A comedy where cultural differences are a novelty" and is based around a company that sells novelty items in the US but who has recently outsourced their call center to India. The story revolves around Todd, the call center manager, who finds out about the outsourcing only after returning from management training and then told that he must move to India to manage the new call center. Throughout the episodes, Todd will encounter cultural differences and have to train his new Indian employees on how to not only talk like Americans, but think like them as well.

After a few clicks around the Internet, I found out that the show is based on a 2006 movie of the same name which received several high marks from critics and even earned "Best Film" awards at several film festivals.

The funny thing that hit me though, is the amazing amount of negative sentiment over the TV series. At almost every site where the TV series is being discussed, negative bashing abounded. Most all sites had comments regarding the poor timing of the show considering the high unemployment rate. Several of the comments revolved around the insensitivity and lack of American loyalty of NBC by airing a TV show like this when millions of US citizens are losing their jobs to employees in other countries around the world – not just in India, but in China, Philippines, Mexico and other countries.

So, let me just say upfront that I am completely sympathetic to anyone who has lost their job, whether it is due to outsourcing or not. These are indeed difficult times in the US for anyone looking for a job and the added pressures of trying to support a family make it even more difficult. I am also fully aware that the issue surrounding outsourcing isn’t just occurring in the contact center industry but in many others as well. Most recently, IT departments have been hit hard with their US-based jobs being outsourced to off-shore, lower-cost employees.

However, I’d like to offer up a few high-level thoughts on those negative comments, specifically as they relate to this TV show and to US-based contact centers:

  1. Outsourcing isn’t new in the contact center industry and has been around for a few decades. It has, however, made its way into the American consciousness more recently as contact centers started opening sites in India due to cheaper labor and advances in technology (reliable, fast and clear voice connections, secure data). However, more recently, many of those jobs have started to make their way back into the States for several reasons including cheaper labor, distributed contact centers brought together through technology and ability for agents to work from home thus decreasing operational costs. However, one of the key drivers for that move was the cultural barriers encountered between US customers and international agents (accents, customs, inability to relate to local events, etc.) thus forcing the need to move contact centers back to US soil. For this reason, I think the TV show does more to promote homeshoring than it does off shoring and not the other way around.
  2. The bottom line is that businesses in the US need to survive, period. The contact center has been typically seen as a "cost center" and is going to be one of the first to be outsourced as a result. Right or wrong, US employees will continue to lose their jobs if the same job can be performed at the same level or better for less money elsewhere. By applying basic business fundamentals, if outsourcing contact center agents enables a business to survive, far more jobs around the rest of the business can be KEPT than those that are lost. In this case, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Before I leave this point and go onto the next, let me point out that there has been a trend occurring in the contact center industry, and one that we at Interactive Intelligence have been promoting –  and that is a switch in the contact center paradigm from a "cost center" to a "profit center." With a few changes in the mindset of executive management and some additional training of agents on focusing on sales and customer retention, contact centers can quickly become a huge revenue source to the business through up-sell and cross-sell opportunities as well as building customer loyalty and repeat business.
  3. If outsourcing keeps a company in business, the idea is that it will also make them more profitable. If a company becomes more profitable, they are able to create more jobs. In the area of the contact center, if you are an agent who loses a job to an offshore outsourcer, then you have the opportunity to work for the same in a different capacity – inside sales, development, product management, IT, marketing, sales, finance, collections, etc. The skills you acquired during your employment along with the product/service/company knowledge you acquired can be used elsewhere in the business.
  4. Many US companies that outsource departments abroad often open up additional international markets which stimulate growth in their own products and services as well as others. Remember, we no longer live in just a US-based economy but in a world economy. Let’s take a simple scenario and use contact centers as the example. As US-based contact centers open up new centers in India, China or some other country, contact center vendors like ours benefit by additional exposure of our products and services. This in turn adds new revenue opportunities as a result and thus stimulating our local economy by increased spending and job creation. Additionally, the exposure to the US culture has the effect of stimulating interest in US products and services. Since the Indian (or Chinese, or whomever) agent has more money to spend, he can spend it on those same US products and services. As you can see, in a world economy, the long term effect on outsourcing has great potential to grow the US economy through international markets. Does it always work like this? No, not always but the potential is there.
  5. Lastly, and perhaps a bit too focused on my own industry, it is important to note that the contact center growth rate in the US has been in the low single-digits for years, thus stunting domestic revenue growth potential for contact center vendors like ours. Internationally, however, growth rates in countries like India, the Philippines, China, and others are in the double-digits. This means greater opportunities for all contact center vendors to sell our products and services abroad and thus grow our revenues and employee base.

Before I wrap up this blog, let’s get back to the original thought that spurred this whole discussion – the upcoming NBC show Outsourced. Will I watch it? I’m not sure that any of you really care, but if you did, I would say that, yes, I would like to see it assuming that I can find the time. It deals with subject matter that revolves around my job and I’m interested to see if it stays on or not.

However, the bottom line is that is is just a TV show. If the general public doesn’t like it, thinks it is "un-American", or that it promotes more outsourcing of US jobs, then they won’t watch it and it will quietly die like 90% of the other programs introduced each fall.

Meanwhile, businesses will continue to grow and fail, outsourcing will continue to occur, and we will all continue to depend upon the world economy.

Tim Passios