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Who'll Have the Last Laugh?

The new NBC sitcom Outsourced tackles the touchy subject of sending jobs to India.

October 8, 2010
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In the new NBC sitcom Outsourced, a rookie manager returns from training, only to learn that his call center has been “offshored.”

“Costs were through the roof. You know, pensions, health care. We had to do a little ‘right-sizing,' ” explains an executive, surrounded by empty desks. “But there's no one here,” says Todd Dempsy (played by Ben Rappaport). “Exactly,” says the executive. “That's what makes us the right size.” Threatened with unemployment, Dempsy agrees to leave Kansas City and manage the novelty company's call center in India.

NBC hopes viewers will embrace the workplace personalities—the undermining subordinate, the wallflower who speaks in whispers, Mr. Chatty—and laugh as Dempsy explains Americans' appetite for fake vomit and cheese-head hats, and as he samples “yellow and green stuff” in the cafeteria in India.

Executives who have worked with offshore call centers see true comedic potential. Kerry Carstairs, senior vice president of operations for Plantation, Florida-based C3/CustomerContactChannels, which operates call centers from Utah to India, says she is “thrilled” about the sitcom and thinks that it will humanize the disembodied voices Americans hear on the phone.

“I think it will be great for our industry,” Carstairs says. “The show will make the people real to the general public, and I think that it will be done in an amusing way.”

Joel Friedman, who oversaw the offshoring of Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon National Corp.'s call center, sees fodder for the sitcom in his own experience. The bank's Indian staff was assigned Anglicized names like “Brittany,” he says. At times, representatives read straight from troubleshooting guides that had nothing to do with the caller's problem. And calls turned awkward when representative confused identically named cities. “They'd bring up something about Portland, Maine, when the caller was talking about Portland, Oregon,” Friedman, who no longer works for First Horizon, says with a chuckle.

But the transition also had a serious side: Call volume dropped 25 percent during the first three months of the transition, he says. The call center, which served internal customers such as mortgage brokers, became known as “the place of last resort.“

Miriam Nelson, call center practice leader with Aon Consulting, says Outsourced shows that offshoring is “not so easy to do.” Nelson's team of organizational psychologists monitors more than 1 million calls a year for clients to ensure that American customers receive a consistent experience no matter where their call is answered. “A lot of organizations have been surprised by the amount of resources that it takes to shift to the offshore location,” she says.

Companies that offshore must set up a governance structure to manage the relationship, monitor the operations, hire people who understand the cultural differences and spot potential problems, says Chris Andrews, senior analyst with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research Inc.

Companies find that workplace behavior and communication differ across cultures. “What would be an ineffective boss in the U.S. might be a boss that is highly respected somewhere else for the exact same qualities,”says Vicki Flier Hudson, president of Roswell, Georgia-based Highroad Global Services Inc., which provides cross-cultural training. “The problem isn't that there are those differences. The problem is usually that neither side is aware that they're there until they clash with each other when they're trying to accomplish an objective.” U.S. companies have sought help after missing deadlines, she says, because they thought when the Indian company said, “That should be possible,” it meant “yes” when it actually meant “no.”

NBC publicists say the sitcom, which premiered September 23, draws its humor from the workplace and culture clashes and fundamentally isn't about offshoring. But some people still question whether a nation with 9.6 percent unemployment rate will embrace a show whose premise rests on the antics of Indians who replace American workers. “I'm curious to know if the NBC executives have a full appreciation for just how politically charged offshoring work to India is,” Forrester Research's Andrews says.

Critical reviews have run the gamut. Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times characterizes the series as “actually quite charming.” Alan Pergament of the website TV Worth Watching calls the pilot “offensive and amusing.” And People magazine advises its readers to “skip it.”

NBC recently picked up the full season of Outsourced. Through mid-October, the show was averaging a weekly total of 6.3 million viewers, according to an NBC news release.

Workforce Management, October 2010, p. 3 -- Subscribe Now!

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