By Lisa A. Bastian
Shortly after the presidential Oval Office change in January, the almost-forgotten trumpet call of “Buy American, Hire American” is heard once again heard across the land after years of muffling. But this time, an added message is resonating with the citizenry; one that demands the end of job offshoring whenever and wherever possible.
Yes, U.S. manufacturing suffered great losses in recent years due to overseas moves. But so did the contact center industry. Sadly, between 2006 and 2014, the U.S. lost more than 200,000 contact center positions; many of which turned up in offshore centers grabbing the lion’s share of industry jobs. However, nationalist and globalist forces in play for years are changing this scenario for the better. The industry’s health is steadily improving as it finds new and innovative ways to help businesses become leading-edge providers of quality customer satisfaction.
The Multi-Faceted Push to Keep Contact Centers Statewide
“Years ago, back in the dot-com days, some industry leaders and companies predicted these centers would be replaced by automated, self-service systems on the Web,” explains Peter DeHaan, publisher of Connections Magazine, a national print/online publication covering the contact center industry for decades.
However, that online model left lots of big gaps in execution and acceptance by customers, so reluctantly companies admitted they needed call centers but, wanted them at the lowest price possible. That’s when the surge to move off-shore happened, which has generally not gone so well for various reasons. For one thing, many customers still do not feel comfortable dealing with overseas workers, no matter how well they speak English. The backlash was pretty severe, notes DeHaan, so about eight to ten years ago, American companies began bringing back all or some of their services to the U.S. Shore, and the overseas labor rate was attractive at first. But DeHaan says feedback he’s received from industry players and his own experience indicate that operational cost savings expected at some centers evaporate due to companies needing to pay for required extra supervision and other unexpected expenses to ensure quality and safety standards.
Re-shoring is a trend that shows no abatement, and could now be a defacto solid business practice for businesses for many reasons. For example, unions are making the issue a front-burner more than ever. Recent negotiations of new contracts at Verizon and AT&T saw thousands of workers demanding the end of outsourced unionized call center jobs to overseas locations. The reality is that when companies sent call-center jobs offshore, Americans are pressured to accept lower wages, benefits and/or conditions to impossibly “compete” with operations paying $1/hour or giving full-timers less than $300 a month.
This past April, Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America, blogged about the negative effects of offshoring call center positions. He cited Xerox’s announcement last fall of hiring an additional 800 call center workers in the Philippines, while simultaneously closing American call centers and laying off 950 U.S. workers. He also talked of plans by Florida-based Sykes Enterprises to open a new call center in the Philippines employing over 2,000 and shutter its Eugene, Oregon center. “That firm,” wrote Shelton, “had actually warned workers to keep quiet about the closure.”
The re-shoring movement is definitely getting traction for another reason. News stories about about small- and large-scale fraudulent practices by overseas workers stealing customer funds and damaging brand reputations. Some of these employees work for legitimate center operations, some do not. Last October, the U.S. Department of Justice released an indictment against scammers operating out of Indian call center whose “enormous and complex fraud scheme…resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in victim losses” from over 15,000 known U.S. victims.
Non-Americans are targeted, too. This past March it was reported about 60 employees claiming to be from British telecom TalkTalk gained access to customer bank accounts through verbal trickery. And in 2011, three employees representing TalkTalk at its outsourced Wipro center in Calcutta, India, were arrested on the suspicion they sold TalkTalk customer data. Unfair or not, stories like these are sending a message to Mainstreet America: “Don’t trust non-U.S, contact center workers.”
“The reality is that fraud can happen in any call center, in any industry…” notes DeHaan, “that’s just human nature. The way to lessen fraud is to hire good people in the first place who will abide by good business practices.”
Enough complaints have been filed that Washington is again trying to do what free market forces can’t or won’t do quick enough. In January, seven Senators wrote President Trump urging him to not just focus on bringing but manufacturing jobs. “We urge you to take executive action and to support legislation to help protect and bring call center jobs back to the United States,” they opined in their letter.
That legislation may be the “U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act” introduced in the House and Senate. It would do three things if passed: require U.S. callers be told the location of the call center they’ve called, offer callers the option to be connected to a U.S.-based center, and make those companies who offshore call center jobs ineligible for certain federal grants and taxpayer-funded loans.
Livable Paychecks and Working Conditions Make Centers Community Assets
So, if more contact center jobs stay in America, is that a good thing for the economy? Are these service positions now paying enough to support those who wish for enough money to move out of their parents’ basements after graduation? The answer is a resounding “yes” for millions of industry workers. Even with at least 29 states mandating minimum wages above the federal minimum rate of $7.25/hour, a contact center job can look attractive to many job seekers.
According to Payscale.com’s survey filled out by about 1,300 U.S. call center representatives nationally, the median salary was $33,772/year. The highest salary rate clocked in at $47,000/year. Moreover, a “fair number [of employees] do receive medical benefits and a majority have dental insurance,” noted the Payscale.com report. Not surprisingly, then, job satisfaction was high among survey respondents, who find the customer care skills they learn can adapt them to other future careers…or advance them in the same industry.
Today’s call center jobs, the backbone of a successful company’s sales, service and support operations, can be worked anywhere there is Internet access, and so be decentralized. This opens the door to more remote workers benefitting Americans who previously could not work at a center due to physical, psychological or scheduling reasons. The off-site option also helps companies find more well-educated and/or well-trained workers who only want remote employment.
Still, the brick-and-mortar call facility is not going away anytime soon, and neither is the work-in-your-cube-with-a-manager-nearby environment. Some firms set up shop in places with specific worker demographics; e.g., tech firms tend to locate to a labor market with tech-background residents. Others seek places populated by an abundance of bi- or tri-lingual workers, or near universities where the more educated or sophisticate worker lives.
Chicago-based JLL, a professional services firm, provides current industry stats about the country’s four regions in its 21-page 2017 “Call Center Outlook” report. The South employs 782,018 workers (average hourly rate of $15.76); the Midwest employs 534,321 workers (average hourly rate of $17); the Northeast employs 703,785 workers (average hourly rate of $18.70); and the West employs 575,866 workers (average hourly rate of $18.38). Mean national hourly wage determined was $17.39 for 2,595,990 contact center employees.
Regarding the top five markets by contact center concentration, JLL’s report names Pueblo, CO, and Yuma, AZ, in the West; Sebring, FL, and Waco, TX, in the South; and Lewiston, ME, in the Northeast. Of markets experiencing the highest growth of CSR employees, the report highlights the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area. “It has a signifcantly higher cost-of-living ratio than other cities and remains competitive in entry-level pay,” note the authors. From 2010 to 2015, “this area saw growth of over 47,000 contact center jobs.”
“By and large, companies seek the most low-cost area, meeting their work-quality needs,” say DeHaan. At the same time, communities of all sizes are putting call centers on their short list of industries to attract with incentives. “As industry salaries rise, insightful municipalities want these jobs,” he adds. “Unlike manufacturing, these operations are quiet, and produce very little pollution due to production or shipping activities.”
Call Centers Support Brand Development With New and Enhanced Tools
Excellent customer service never goes out of style. These days, savvy companies need to be on social media to fix problems and address posts made by unhappy customers, as well to make happy customers brand champions.
All this interaction needs to be done in real-time, and to be done constantly, but many firms don’t have the manpower, time or expertise needed to do it. Enter the contact center solution. Increasingly in-house and outsourced call centers are staffed by workers trained specifically in social media to contact and connect with customers. “Facebook and Twitter are currently the social media platforms of choice…” stated DeHann, “and are integrated with a center’s overall communications and service model.”
Technology, or sophisticated new software, continues to reshape and revolutionize the industry with the means to better serve the customer. Much of this is in the form of customer analytics, giving reps the data they need to better understand past, current and even possibly future needs of clientele. With that said, good ‘ol fashioned customer service skills are always key to a successful operation. That’s why training ranging from best-practice phone etiquette to lessons on how to de-escalate negative customer interactions and find win-win solutions are so important. In the future, training will be even more important for 24/7 work environments. Most training now happens either in-house/on-site at the centers, but increasingly moving to online, on-demand platforms. JLL’s report notes that these same new technologies, plus the increased demand for automation and “complex conversations with the end user will give onshore contact centers the upper hand going into 2017 and beyond.”
In late 2016, DMG Consulting LCC conducted a worldwide survey of contact centers to learn about their 2017 servicing goals. Thirty-seven unique ones were identified in the results, according to Donna Fluss, an industry expert and DMG’s president. The top five goals were: 1) to deliver an outstanding customer experience, 2) improve productivity, 3) improve self-service, 4) reduce cost of service, and 5) deliver a personalized customer experience. The good news is that providing high levels of customer service took the top spot, says Fluss, as that means executives understand it is a differentiator for an organization. Another positive discovered is that personalized customer experience is an area of major investment for companies now and in the future.
Investing in processes designed to better harness the power of analytics will continue to directly impact the valuable personalization component of customer service, too. “We are living in the era of millienials who expect [businesses] to know who they are, and to deliver outstanding customer service,” says Fluss. Customers in this age group tend to enjoy self-service, online customer care, she notes; an area definitely in need of improvements. Fluss believes a huge opportunity exists for designers of new voice-response systems. “Companies have not been keeping them current, and there are many really bad ones are out there,” she notes. Other welcome improvements would be more personalized wording in customer communications; shorter system time delays between self-service/online customer responses; and just fewer “hoops” for customers to jump through to be assisted quickly and efficiently.
Clearly, the contact center sector is fast-tracked for growth and transformation while continuing to give hope, good jobs and economic stability to countless Americans for years to come.
Bio: Veteran business communicator Lisa A. Bastian is an award-winning journalist and editor who has authored well over 500 articles for national magazines focused on economic development, global trade and related industries. Since 1986, she has served clients nationwide with her editorial and copy writing skills (see BastianPR.com). Lisa lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her family, and is a former president/board member of the local chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.