CALL CENTER JOBS FINALLY (AND HOPEFULLY) COMING BACK TO U.S. SOIL

On March 25, 2020, Reuters published an article entitled, “India’s huge outsourcing industry struggles with work-from-home scenario.” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-outsourcing/indias-huge-outsourcing-industry-struggles-with-work-from-home-scenario-idUSKBN21C0LR

            The Reuters article detailed how “[m]any of the [India-based] companies that provide business services such as call centres, information technology services and business process automation were not prepared for work-from-home arrangements.  That raises questions about whether one of India’s showpiece industries can function smoothly amid the coronavirus crisis.” 

The article was music to the ears of Lauren Irwin-Szostak, President of Business Processes Redefined, LLC, which outsources and manages a network of U.S.-based call centers.

            “Generally speaking, U.S.-based call centers are held to a higher standard than foreign-based call centers,” Irwin-Szostak said.  “We also have to pay more to operate and to ensure full compliance with federal and state laws.  In my opinion, we deserve more reciprocity from U.S. businesses who have outsourced their call center needs to India and other foreign countries.”

Such reciprocity may soon be forthcoming.  On March 24, 2020, India’s Prime Minster ordered 1.3 billion Indians to stay at home for 21 days to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The Reuters article stated that, prior to the shutdown order, at least one India-based call center operation “had repeatedly declined staffers’ pleas to work from home.”  Similarly, the article referenced three employees of a midsize IT firm who “said they were all being asked to come to the office until last Friday, even as some expressed concerns about working in close proximity with roughly 90 other people.”

Indeed, the article reported that this IT firm’s “security guards barred employees from venturing outside one of [its] offices in Pune to avoid attracting the police, fearing a forced shutdown,” according to two employees.  And one of those employees said that “a human resources executive told him not to wear a mask as it would ‘panic people who come to work.’”

Now, the “forced shutdown” that this IT firm feared “attracting” has come to India, and most companies seem particularly ill equipped to deal with it.  For example, the article stated that some of the IT firm’s “employees were being asked to remain home this week, even though they lacked equipment such as laptops,” according to employees.         

The Reuters article also cited a teleservices provider “which had been reluctant to let staff work from home,” until “employees were finally told Sunday the company would begin installing corporate desktop computers at their homes after a wider lockdown in several cities.”  Now, with the government-ordered nationwide shutdown forcing such work-at-home arrangements, that and countless other companies find themselves behind the eight ball. 

Significantly, the article noted that the primary concern that India-based companies have about performing such services remotely is complying with legal requirements governing their industries, not employing technologies to create a work-from-home infrastructure.  As one senior human resources executive at a top Indian IT firm said of working remotely, “These days the challenge is not really the technology, the challenge is the regulations, and in case something goes wrong, who’s going to take the responsibility.”  That executive added that in some cases, companies must seek and obtain client permission before allowing employees to work on sensitive projects outside the office.

Such compliance concerns are especially acute for U.S. companies who outsource their debt collection and customer support communication needs to India call centers.  The vastness and complexity of federal and state laws regulating the U.S. collection industry create a compliance minefield for all call centers who perform their functions remotely.

That is especially so in India, which has no infrastructure in place for remote operations.  Moreover, many Indian citizens reside in homes which cannot accommodate work-from-home equipment and systems, much less do so with the degree of security and confidentiality that will ensure compliance with the complex U.S. regulatory scheme governing the account receivable management industry.

In Irwin-Szostak’s opinion, India’s shutdown all but guarantees that U.S. companies will have to repatriate their debt collection and call center operations – to those companies’ benefit.  “My 15 years or so of dealing with India-based call centers have been replete with frustration,” she said.  “Their phone operators are often difficult to comprehend and/or inadequately informed, and occasionally arrogant and/or less than honest.  Such shortcomings hurt the U.S. companies that outsource their call center needs overseas by turning off their customers.  The opportunity loss simply doesn’t make sense, even with the short-term savings.

“U.S.-based call centers avoid such problems while maximizing compliance with federal and state laws,” she added.  “And such call centers can and do work well together. We share common ground and mutual respect.  I have never experienced that in dealing with India-based call centers.”                

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