3.31.2004

USM prof reveals woes of outsourcing The Clarion-Ledger (3/30)

When American CEOs are berated for outsourcing call center jobs to Asia, most simply retort that their companies are chasing cheap labor.

But companies may decide the price of that cheap labor is too high if they read a new book by a University of Southern Mississippi professor who studied the call center industry for eight years.

David Butler's Bottom-line Call Center Management is a rare examination of a job that employs 7 percent of the American work force.

[snip]

"What CEOs don't tell reporters is that outsourcing is still experimental and the experiment may not be working," said Butler, who heads the international economic development doctoral program at the Hattiesburg-based university. "Overseas call centers can cost more in customer goodwill than they save in staff salaries."

Many corporate executives who outsourced call centers to Asia confided to Butler that they are plotting quiet moves back to U.S. soil. They don't want to lose face by admitting errors. But they don't want to lose American clients who resent having customer service calls answered on the other side of the world.

"The current political climate and terrible jobless numbers have made outsourcing a hot-button issue even for white collar professionals," Butler said. "Airlines, brokerage firms, banks and manufacturers need to look at call centers as part of brand imaging. Call centers are the continuous bond customers have with companies. Call center staff calm panicky customers with detailed advice. They help them choose new products. They create empathy."

[snip]

Much of Butler's data is anecdotal because the U.S. Commerce Department doesn't track call center employment statistics. The jobs are lumped into larger categories like banking.

[snip]

"It's elitist for economists to be dismissive of jobs lost from call center outsourcing," Freeland said. "Ocean Springs went from a big box retail center generating zero jobs to an employer who gave livelihoods to over 700 residents, including displaced workers and former military personnel."

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