A Word is a Powerful Thing

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineA reader complained about our content in the May issue. In fact, he was downright mad over our coverage promoting outsourcing call centers. The ironic thing is that this reader actually works for an outsourcing call center! Yes, they go by a different label, but they are, by definition, an outsourcing call center – no more and no less.

The May issue had focused on explaining and advancing the cause of call center outsourcing, which would benefit this reader, but offense was taken and ire stirred. My response to this unexpected criticism ranged between bewilderment and anger, but has since settled down to be mere amusement. Yes, a word is a powerful thing.

It seems that “outsourcing” has been politicized. Once a word becomes politicized, as outsourcing was in the 2004 United States presidential campaign, all reasonable thinking stops and logic becomes, well, illogical. Rhetoric steps in and common sense is relegated to lesser important things. Think of any major societal issue and it has likely been politicized by a one word rallying cry. Regardless of what the word is, or it’s original and true intent, proponents hold it up high as a emblem of virtue and all that is good, while opponents decry it as indicative of evil, being characteristic of what is wrong in the world today.

Twenty years ago, the word telemarketing was coined to put an apt and descriptive label on a nascent and promising industry; one that used the telephone to cost-effectively promote products, better service customers, and provide companies with a competitive advantage. But then that simple and benign word became politicized and now few people use it; in most circles we are reluctant to even utter it out loud. Those who still do telemarketing, have long since adopted a less emotionally-laden label for fear of verbal retaliation or psychological retribution. While those who vehemently object to telemarketing’s practice, wield that word as an offensive slur to convey their frustration against all they find unacceptable relating to conducting business over the phone. In short, it is no longer politically correct to engage in telemarketing. A word is a powerful thing.

So, emotion and rhetoric aside, what is outsourcing? In it’s broadest, most general sense, outsourcing is having another company to do work for you that you could do yourself. This occurs at both the business level and a personal level – and more frequently then you might think.

Some common business outsourcing examples include: payroll, bookkeeping, human resources, building maintenance, cleaning services, telecommunications management, public relations, executive search, tax accounting, information technology, and, of course, call processing. On the personal level, we outsource as well. Consider the dry cleaners, car washes, tax accountants, lawn services, car mechanics, maid services, pizza delivery, catering, and so forth. In fact, anyone who provides a service is actually an outsourcer and we are all, in one way or another, consumers of outsourcing services.

Does this imply that outsourcing is a manifestation of laziness? Although that may be the case in some limited instances, the far more common and general reasoning is that outsourcing can reduce costs, save time, or result in higher quality. Sometimes outsourcers can provide two of these results or maybe even all three. Another oft-stated justification for outsourcing is that it allows organizations to offload nonessential tasks, thereby permitting them to focus limited resources (which is a reality for every organization) on their core competencies. Some organizations have found it beneficial to even outsource their core competencies. Why not if it can be done cheaper, better, or faster by a specialist?

Therefore, we can correctly conclude that the entire service sector provides outsourcing services, that we all use these outsourcing services, and that there are many wise and beneficial business reasons to do so. So why all the flap over something that is so common and so pervasive?

Although the word “outsourcing” is the moniker that has been villainized, this is a grossly unfair and ignorant generalization. What the focus and outcry is truly about is offshore call center outsourcing that is done badly. Offshoring is not outsourcing, but rather a small subset of it. In fact, the majority of call center outsourcing today is reportedly intra-country, that is, it is companies located within the United States, outsourcing call processing work to call centers located within the United States. Yes, there is an increasing trend towards offshore call center outsourcing, and it may one day represent the majority, but for the near future it embodies a minority of call center outsourcing, where it is projected to remain for the next several years.

This is in no way to imply that I am against offshore call center outsourcing per se. I am, in fact, a hard-core, free-market, laissez-faire idealist. At least until my phone call is answered by someone who I can’t understand, be it due to a heavy accent or words that are used in a way that simply doesn’t make sense. While such a result may be indicative (but not necessarily so) that a call center is located outside the country, it is critical to point out that the converse should not be assumed either. That is, every agent who speaks with clear and comprehensible English, is not automatically US-based. Just as lucid and concise communication can occur with agents in other countries, severe communication hurdles can exist with agents located within our borders. The original and true frustration was not with the location of the agent, but quite simply with their ability to effective communicate in understandable and conversational English.

Politicians saw this frustration as a safe and universally acceptable cause on which to campaign. They made the false assumption that it was a location issue, put a wrong label on it (outsourcing versus offshoring), vilified it, and promoted themselves as the ones who could solve the problem they defined. That’s politics!

The next step was to feed the fire by adding fuel to their argument. National security issues were brought into play, as was personal privacy concerns, since information was leaving the country to reside in a foreign-located database. The exporting of jobs was denounced, as was the harm that this was causing to the U.S. economy. By the time the politicians were done, “outsourcing” (or more correctly, offshore call center outsourcing) was portrayed as a threat to all that is near and dear to the hearts and minds of the people. It was the enemy and it had to be stopped. Rhetoric is persuasive and as such, a word becomes a powerful thing.

The results of all this are sad, but predictable. First, people learned that is was okay to be intolerant of agents who spoke with an accent or hadn’t yet fully mastered the English vernacular. Unfortunately, some people went beyond intolerance, with their attitudes spilling over into hatred, bigotry, and abhorrence. Secondly, we were taught that any form of call center outsourcing – and to a degree, all outsourcing – is an increasingly unpatriotic and unacceptable act.

Lastly, and most dangerously for the industry, is a spate of bills that were introduced on the national, state, and local level to control, limit, or restrict the inbound call center industry. Although the intent of these bills are ostensibly focused against the offshore call center, their broad and inclusive language is all-encompassing, covering all call center outsourcers (remember that U.S.-based call centers handle the majority of US outsourcing work) and has widespread ramifications for the in-house call center as well.

Less anyone misunderstand what I am saying or the way in which I communicated it:

  • Outsourcing is not synonymous with offshoring.
  • I support outsourcing as good, beneficial, and necessary and I am passionate about the importance and value of call center outsourcing.
  • Offshore outsourcing is here, it is real, and the marketplace should decide its position in the global economy.
  • The real enemy is legislation, which if left unchecked will forever and detrimentally change the entire call center industry, be it outbound or inbound, outsource or in-house, as well as offshore.
  • I love the United States of America – it’s the politicians that drive me crazy!

Yes, a word is a powerful thing – and I try to choose mine carefully.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine June 2005]