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OmBlog
Posted at 06:40 PM ET, 10/11/2012

Outsourcing customer service at The Post

I had a morning this week that underscored the smaller, more globalized world we all live in now, whether it’s in journalism or, well, just about anything else.

First, I got a few more e-mails from Post subscribers angry that when they have a complaint about their home delivery and call (202) 334-6100, they get a customer service representative in the Philippines who does her best to be helpful but who is hampered by the fact that she doesn’t know Bowie from Ballston.

Second, I went to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) this week to title and register a used car that I bought out of state from a private party. Of the three people I dealt with there — all consummate bureaucrats — the first was a boisterous and thick-set man originally from West Africa, the second was a friendly chap who came here from the Caribbean and the third a careful, precise and rather quiet woman from South Asia.

Later, so relieved that I had escaped the MVA without a major rise in blood pressure, I stopped at a nearby Starbucks to get a concoction celebrating my good fortune about having a street-legal car. There, a chatty young man of Caribbean descent took my order and the woman barista who steamed it up was from East Africa.

Finally I went to the parts counter of a nearby car dealer to get new floor mats for my old car that I’m selling, and the man there was Raul, whose roots were in Central America.

The point of all of this is that no matter what sort of customer service you encounter at a retail or general-public level in this region, and in many areas of the United States, chances are you’re going to be dealing with folks who came from, or whose parents came from, somewhere else.

Now, back to The Post for a minute.

Most people who complain to me about the outsourced customer service would rather have Americans doing this work. In a time of 8 percent unemployment, so would I. But honestly that’s not going to happen. The Post is in cost-cutting mode, as it must be until a new economic model is found that will finance print, Web, mobile, and tablet editions of The Post. Outsourcing is vastly cheaper.

Many years ago these functions used to be in-house. Then they were outsourced to companies with call centers in rural parts of the United States where wages were lower. Then they went to Asia. Today, circulation managers here in the District say that since customer service was outsourced to the company in Asia, the number of complaints has trended downward significantly.

I know it seems odd that someone half a world away who doesn’t know the difference between Northeast and Northwest is handling your account. But really, it takes just a few seconds for an electronic transaction, and the service representatives in the Philippines are almost all college graduates for whom this job is a lifeline and a big step ahead. The workers there have instant access via e-mail and computer to your account and to your distributor and carrier back here in the Mid-Atlantic. The distributors and carriers get the complaint from the Philippines instantly on their mobile phones even while they’re still out delivering papers in the morning.

Now, back to the motor vehicles office.

A trip to the MVA, or the corresponding DMVs in the District and Virginia, is always an experience in frustration. There’s something about vehicle titles, registration, inspections, driver’s licenses and all those endless forms that go along with them that is just plain baffling. Every “i” and “t” has to be dotted and crossed to perfection or you’re sent back home for more documents or back to the end of the line to do penance. It’s easier to get a passport than it is to register your car.

And people who work in motor vehicle offices I think are attracted to exactitude, or maybe just are trained and required to be persnickety, about everything.

I had a couple of small cross-outs on the back of my title and bill of sale — which were done in front of the Pennsylvania notary where I had bought the car — I had confused the last-name-first, first-name-first lines, and the print-your-name, sign-your-name boxes. Oy. This led to my diversion to the MVA supervisor, who had to play 20 questions to make sure I was on the up and up.

But he signed off on my forms, and I was out of there with plates and registration in hand in 55 minutes, a record. It helped that I could go online beforehand, get all the right forms printed and filled out in advance.

At the Starbucks, my coffee whooshed out in no time. And at the parts counter, I discovered with Raul’s help that I couldn’t absolutely match the color of my original floor mats unless I had my Vehicle Identification Number with me, which I didn’t because I wasn’t driving that car.

I encountered a lot of accented English during that morning, and that led to a couple of minor communications glitches, and I learned a lot about personal journeys from people from other countries.

But all of these people working with the public have something in common, even the phone reps in the Philippines. They have all been touched, trained, and shaped by an American notion of customer service. That’s not always a perfect system, but for the most part these people were knowledgeable about their products or services, reasonably polite, and helpful. And all were strivers, some of them saying they worked two jobs to get ahead.

Yes, that sounds like America to me. Out of the many, one.

By  |  06:40 PM ET, 10/11/2012

Tags:  economy, immigration, media, jobs, labor, Maryland, Virginia, D.C., The Washington Post

 
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