Sunday, September 24, 2006

Outsource This

When you have a few hours to kill before you leave on vacation, what better way to use it than to start working on next year's vacation? (I like to plan ahead, but my husband REALLY likes to plan ahead.) Which meant a call to the Frequent Flyer line to line up our flight to Berlin. It was a slow Sunday morning, and we got in a very pleasant conversation with the very pleasant customer service rep at United. While we were chatting, she mentioned that her call center was closing down next month and the jobs going to India. We did a bit of boo-hooing with her, but at this point, job-going-to-Bangalore doesn't raise much of an eyebrow - just another 'dog bites man' story.

But outsourcing was on my mind as I cruised the Boston Sunday Globe, and saw an interview with the president of McDonald's USA.

Q: McDonald's recently started testing the use of call centers to handle drive-through orders at some stores. Why does that make sense? And are there any other major innovations the chain has made recently?

A: Using call centers allows us to provide a high level of service and be able to do that from a remote location in an environment where the crew can be much more comfortable. We go slow with tests like that if they're for efficiency's sake because you can never really replace a friendly smile.

Would you like some fries with your sacred cow?

Come to find out, this is apparently old news. (There was a NY Times piece on it last April.) And the drive-through outsourcing is not yet off-shoring. But isn't working in a fast food restaurant precisely the type of job we thought was immune to outsourcing? Anyway, when they figure out how to automate burger flipping and loading Crisco into the fry-o-lator, I guess we'll kiss those jobs good-bye, too.

McD's is also looking into self-service kiosks. Yet another one of those wonderful efficiencies - like pumping your own gas, or using the Home Depot self-checkout when you buy a tube of grout - that just throws more of the work burden onto the customer. Forget whether "you can't replace a friendly smile or not", I actually don't go to Home Depot or McDonald's to have someone smile at me. It's just that, as far as I can figure out, self-service never manages to save me all that much time and aggravation. When I pump my own gas, my hands smell gasoline-ish. At Home Depot, there's always some screw up..."please remove the item from the bag area" or whatever it is that the robot-voice yells at you.

(Not all self-service is terrible. I really like - make that love - having a FastLane transponder which lets me sail right through an automated turnpike toll. It's so satisfying, especially when there's a huge knot of cars at the toll-taker lanes.)


John Whiteside said...

This kind of outsourcing can backfire. My car dealer, part of a local chain, centralized their appointment-setting; when I called with an urgent need (one of my windows fell into the door - because of a defect for which there had been a recall) - the call center operator informed me that the next appointment was in a week. She couldn't help no matter how much I pleaded.

One of their competitors, with the old-fashioned system of someone in the actual department answering the phone, could; when I explained what was going on, the person on the phone walked back to the service area and said "Can we squeeze this guy in tomorrow?" And they did.

Guess which dealership I'm more likely to buy a car from?

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