Outsourcing: Managing Your Brand Across Continents
Outsourcing seems to be the new-new thing and approximately 50% of our major corporations are doing it. What are the costs? The benefits? And what skills need to be managed in order to make it work optimally?
Let’s get a clear understanding of what we mean by outsourcing: it’s the shifting of easily codified jobs – such as help desk support, call centers, system maintenance, and programming jobs – to countries that can manage them more cheaply.
While this function is allegedly freeing up our people from some of the mundane tasks of our workplaces, it’s bringing with it an entirely new set of problems: how do we manage people across continents; how do we know our brand is being maintained when we have no direct control over managing foreign employees; how do we restructure our workspaces once our lower level jobs are farmed out.
WHAT ARE THE COSTS OF OUTSOURCING?
John Ribeiro in a recent article in Darwin, states: “According to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM)… outsourcing to India has saved the U.S. banking industry $6 billion to $8 billion.”
Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the only reason American company’s are outsourcing work is to save money. Let’s take a brief look at the pros and cons of the financials for a moment:
Cost savings: mainly in the area of salaries and management time.
Additional expenditures: vendor selection (legal, travel, time), exchange rates, training, time lag issues, client retention, management or techie retraining (to keep up with the newly required skills).
One of the costs I’ve heard discussed is the human cost: that company employees get resentful when their job descriptions get changed, and have a period of time where they suffer resistance. Eventually, they do come ‘round to recognizing that they are being given higher-value tasks in place of their old work. There don’t seem to be any figures available on this cost.
But there is an additional, unspoken cost. Our relationship with the end customer.
We’ve all dealt with service people from India when we call to ask a question of a vendor. First there is the long, long delay before the phone gets answered. And then there is the accent.
Are the service reps and techies smart? Yes, they are. Are they smarter than Americans? It depends on the person. But they are always cheaper. Do they do the job? Usually. Depends on how well they’ve been trained and managed. They certainly know what to say, how to say it, how to answer questions.
But what about brand management? Do they give the identical service that the company espouses in-house (or, um, in-States)? The answer here is, generally, ‘no’ and deserves further discussion.
HOW DO OUTSOURCED REPS DELIVER BRAND AMBASSADORSHIP
Because lower-level jobs are being filled by people who speak English as a second language, AND who have not had the appreciation of ‘service’ instilled in them since birth (Say what you want: we Americans are raised understanding that we must serve customers and must be served by vendors. People in India are raised to believe they are a replenishable commodity.), these foreign reps will, at best, do a technically good job.
They will NOT, however, carry the company standard, and in a problem situation, may run. I’ve had several people hang up on me when it became clear that my problem was more complex than they could manage.
Do I shrug, and say, “Oh well. He was Indian. He didn’t know any better.” Or do I say, “Why isn’t ABC Company giving me the service they promise on their ads?”
Every single person who works in a company – Every. Single. Person. – is a company’s Brand Ambassador. That means, those young Indian people living in Bangalore (I’ve been there. Outside of the pollution in the city, it’s lovely. Smells like sandalwood throughout the villages.) or wherever, must act exactly like the people you have in the States. If you don’t, you are not managing your brand appropriately.
And therein lies the largest problem created by Outsourcing (other than taking jobs away from an already depleted workforce here in the States): how do American managers effectively communicate with the foreign providers who are answering our phones and doing our programming? How do we make sure that the way we treat customers here in the States is the same way we treat customers in Malaysia, or wherever?
What is our brand? And how do we manage the brand over time and through space?
We need to create a new way to transfer skills and beliefs across continents in order to ensure that our brand is represented effectively in every client interaction. Every client interaction.
BELIEF AND SKILLS TRANSFER
For some reason, some companies still think their ‘brand’ is a visual logo rather than a complete relationship and story. Our brand is the story we tell about ourselves to our customers (defined as employees, vendors, and purchasers of our products) and the relationship we have with all of them. Think about Harley Davidson: somehow they manage to get people tattooing the brand on their bodies! Think about Apple: they’ve taken their IPOD and created fabulous ads that make us get more atuned (ahem… sorry) to what their brand is: cutting edge, different, funky, creative, and fun fun fun. Not to mention that the ad itself makes me want to dance – and then dance to a store and buy a new MAC.
OK. So we’ve got this story and this customer experience in our States-side company, but we don’t have the way forward to ensure we duplicate this with our Outsourced employees.
Here are some ideas in managing your brand across continents and contexts:
- Have the US management team come up with a list of criteria that needs to be adhered to in every customer interaction. Every interaction.
- Design a software/e-learning program, that includes a test that must be taken, to teach outsourced employees the company story, the beliefs and unique attributes, as well as the rules, roles, and expected behaviors.
- send reps from the Stateside group to sit in, coach, and audit how the outsourced people work with customers. Have the outsourced reps tape themselves between their visits and send you the tapes so you can manage them. If there are a large number of folks, get your vendor to tape a representative sampling.
- create a Corporate Bible that must be read prior to a person taking a job. If the employee has been hired by a large vendor group, make sure the entire group gets training on the contents of your Corporate Bible.
- have a States-side employee take full responsibility for managing outsourced functions.
- make sure the vendor takes responsibility to maintain the brand story. Agree up front what that will look like.
It’s not ok just to manage the vendor by choosing wisely. It’s imperative you have a hands-on relationship with each employee, regardless of where they sit. Remember: they are all your customers.