Friday, March 2, 2007

Are we ready for a flat world?

“And I’ll be taking care of business, everyday.”

-Bachman Turner Overdrive

Many large companies take care of customer service by setting up call centers in places like India and Costa Rica.

Workers are cheap, and it boosts the company’s bottom line.

I wonder if the short-term profits are worth the long-term cost.

The trend is called “outsourcing” and is best described in Tom Freidman’s book, The World is Flat. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

Friedman argues that over time, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected and that jobs which used to be unique to one country can now be done in a number of places.

I’ve bought into Tom Friedman mania. I’ve own every book he has written and eagerly read his columns. I have his audio books. I also have my Tivo set to record his documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

Yet lately, I’ve started to wonder if the world is as flat as Tom thinks it is.

I recently saw a segment from one of Friedman’s documentaries where he traveled to India to film customer service employees training to speak with an American dialect.

When they teach those speech lessons, they might want to throw in a few geography classes too. It’s not easy for this Kentuckian to do business with Indian service centers.

Last month, I purchased a chair online from a well-known office supply store. I had a guy lined up to assemble it, and we waited for the chair to arrive.

And waited.

Finally, I called the 800 number for the company. It connected me to a man in India. It took several tries for the man to understand my name (Don McNay must be tough to translate), and once he got it, he proceeded to call me Mr. Don.

I’ve been called a lot of things but never Mr. Don.

I asked where the chair was. He said it was somewhere in Ken-tuck-kee (he pronounced the name of the state phonetically) and guaranteed that it would be at my house in 10 minutes.

He figured that any place in Ken-tuck-kee would be no more than 10 minutes from any other part of the state.

Since he had no tracking number, did not know was shipping service was delivering the chair and seemed shaky about where or what a Ken-tuck-kee was, I did not have confidence in the information I was receiving.

I asked if I could talk to a supervisor. He said he didn’t have one. I then asked if the company stockholders had named him Chairman of the Board. He hung up.

I then called the company’s local store. The store manager spoke perfect English, pronounced my name correctly and happened to be in Kentucky too. She confirmed that the chair was not here. They had sent it to Richmond, Virginia. Even though it was not her problem (online orders are a different department), the next day, I had a chair.

My company does thousands of dollars in annual business with that company. The local manager did not know that “Mr. Don” was ready to send that business elsewhere. She just knew I had a problem. The self-proclaimed Chairman of the Board in India didn’t really care.

To be fair, I’m sure that they pay the manager in Kentucky a lot more than the self-proclaimed Chairman. Yet in this case, it was worth it. I’ll keep doing business.

The chair incident was not an isolated event. The further any customer service center is from where I live, the less the likely I am to get actual service.

When a company relocates service centers to places that that lack any cultural bond with their clientele--where their representatives won’t be able to communicate or understand geographic references--what the company is really saying is that they don’t care about customer service. They want to sell their product and hope buyers leave them alone.

A bad long-term strategy.

If companies want to keep “taking care of business,” they need to remember that it is a lot easier to keep a current customer happy than to find a new one.

Even in a flat world.

Don McNay was proclaimed by actual stockholders to be the Chairman of the Board for McNay Settlement Group Inc. in Richmond, Kentucky (sometimes pronounced ‘Ken-tuck-kee’). You can write to him at and read other things he has written at He hopes that his award-winning syndicated column will win three Pulitzer prizes like Tom Freidman’s has.

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