The headline, quite frankly, scared me: “Bharti Airtel set to increase outsourcing.”
An article in Monday’s Mint detailed Bharti chief executive Manoj Kohli’s plans to hand over even more of the company’s internal processes and functions, such as human resources and billing, to a third party. While media coverage of the Bharti success story has breathlessly marvelled at its ability to cut costs and scale up quickly by farming much of its work elsewhere, I have often cursed customer service at the mobile giant and blamed the said model for my woes. If you need any service — a plan change, an enquiry about an old bill, a desire to understand why something, somewhere, might not work — it becomes readily apparent that one hand (i.e., the third-party services provider) rarely talks to another, let alone five fingers acting in sync on anything. That is why five different people call on the same issue, but you can’t find one who has the right answer.
But merely complaining about the sorry state of customer care in India won’t solve much. And so over the next few months, I plan a few columns that will dissect the issue from multiple vantage points, effective service to worker training to the examination of our own high expectations in an economy that has galloped uphill. In my findings so far, the undercurrent of good service is an empowered work force — those who interface with customers have been given the tools, confidence and information from the higher-ups that they can appropriately defuse the situation at hand. Simple but effective. And sadly, very rare.
A lack of empowerment is why a waiter cannot give you a free drink or dessert, even as he mixed up your order. Or why the bank declines the signature on your cheque, even though you have proof showing you are who you say you are and verify the amount. Or why a customer service representative directs you to Airtel’s website, which will require you to hope she really text messages your password, instead of sending you a duplicate bill from May.
On that note, let’s return to Bharti.I asked a former manager at the company, a self-described “die-hard loyalist”, why things were so bad.
“It’s awful,” she said bluntly, requesting anonymity. “The service executives are outsourced...so they don’t feel an iota for the company.”
The problem is hardly Airtel’s alone, as global outrage over outsourcing — xenophobia and job security aside — comes from the same hunch, that agents “don’t feel one iota” of your pain. Sure, there are the accents, the distance, the misunderstandings. But mainly, there’s a lack of a connection.
They are not a part of the same work culture of the client company, nor do they have incentives to climb up its ladder. Meanwhile, business process outsourcing firms have not mastered yet how to plug growth opportunities , tap into worker potential and truly partner with their clients.
One software firm I visited recently tries to duplicate most roles in the US with a person in India; so besides the majority in customer support, there’s sales, product management, marketing, even accounting. What does that do? It prevents the teams in different countries from seeing the US as client and the Indians as those who kowtow. It forces the workplace to integrate across departments, across countries, and sometimes both at the same time.
So would it be better if Airtel’s operations were captive, or in-house?
In fact, a report last year from analyst firm Forrester Research found more than 60% of captive BPOs (business process outsourcing firms) were not in healthy shape; it predicted that by 2009, more and more companies will shelve their captive models in favour of third-party players, notably in customer support.
So maybe Bharti has had the right idea but wrong approach?
Interestingly, Jai Menon, director of customer service and information technology for Bharti Airtel, wouldn’t totally disagree. I asked, point blank — how do you think customer service is going?
“The most important pillar of our company is service... We’re not at cruising altitude yet,” he says. “But we are rising towards it.”
I appreciate his honesty, even empathy, and ask how Bharti will do it.
He says the plans to increase outsourcing rest on using a fewer number of service providers but more people. To me, that made sense. So hypothetically, if all the services I need are handled by IBM’s folks, then maybe the other firms contracted by Airtel will stop calling or messaging me after I have already paid my bill?
Right, he says, but Airtel must also ensure the technology backs them up to truly streamline and smoothen processes. He concedes those workers need to feel a part of “our DNA... We view them as part of Airtel.”
For my sake, but also for the company’s future, I hope they feel the same.
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