The client had always been challenging since day one.
Maybe, it was because they were a New Yorker. Perhaps, it was because they were under a lot of pressure to make their small business successful.
Whatever it was, the client had quickly developed a reputation for expecting a lot and not being clear about what that was.
Since it was a small team, I was very hands on initially to get the account up and running.
I agreed to allow the account to start below our minimums because, like many small businesses who needed outsourcing, the client promised big things about the future — more work coming and requiring more people — and a long relationship ahead of us.
The beginning was slow just like the start of any new account can be. The work wasn’t very well defined, and despite the team and the client working hard to define the work, there was a lot of confusion initially that raised temperatures on both sides.
The first time I heard about what the client had said, it was second hand, and I was skeptical. Most people don’t encounter overt racism in their daily lives, so I thought maybe the agent misheard the client, or there was just some other type of confusion.
In my interactions with the client, I hadn’t really heard anything like that.
But then, absenteeism on the account started climbing.
When absenteeism occurs on any account, with a frequency that is greater than normal, there’s usually something going on in the work environment.
As a rule, Filipinos will avoid bad situations rather than confront them, and in the outsourcing business, a high absenteeism rate is the surest sign to something toxic in the environment.
I later learned why.
The client was treating the agents horribly. Not only was he yelling at them, and say that the things they were doing were stupid, and in some cases, saying that they were stupid, but he was the first to ring my phone when the smallest thing happened.
A noisy client is an unhappy client.
As a small team, there was no coverage for absenteeism. No backup.
And so, when I saw the client’s number come up on my phone, I already knew what was happening. This was the second time I had gotten a call on a Saturday, and I expected to have to apologize for the absenteeism again.
But what the client said to me, and then my reaction, was something I would never apologize for.
Windz was managing the account. He was managing all small accounts at the time since we were still small.
He had been telling me for some months how poorly the client was treating the agents, which is why we had not just had absenteeism but also turnover problems in such a small account.
We had to refund some money, too, because of the turnover, which the client insisted that we pay the new agent for the training period during which the agent would not be productive.
It was not uncommon that absenteeism happened on a weekend — when the client needed our team the most — because the weekend was when there were plenty of distractions for the agent.
I picked up the phone and as soon as I said “Hello?” the client exploded. There were lots of bad things said about the team’s performance and dedication to their jobs. Most things said were laced with profanities I’ll not repeat.
Profanities from clients I can handle.
It’s normal for small business clients to get frustrated and angry — they feel the absenteeism, attrition, and poor performance more than the larger clients — it’s often their money that they’re spending to get some help from one of our teams, so we take our responsibility to them seriously, and they feel it more when things go wrong.
Today, the client was in a particular tirade. There must have been something else going on.
But what did it was when he started into Windz — my Philippine partner and the person largely responsible for our success in Iloilo — our first office and home base.
At first, it was just profanities. Windz is stupid here, stupid there, doesn’t care.
Again, I knew the client was frustrated and angry — I got it. But the more worked up he got, the more his words became hateful.
Until he finally said it.
Looking back at that moment, I found it ironic that he used the wrong racial slur in regards to Filipinos. He used the slur for the Japanese from the World War II period in American History. Then, for good measure, he used the “N” word (referring to African Americans) combined with a geographic demonym.
And, it was directed at a person who, in my experience, was the opposite of everything the client was saying about him.
Windz is not only a proud Filipino but someone in whom the Philippines can be proud of — because of how much life-changing economic growth Windz’ partnership with me was producing.
So, when the client said it, I was dumbfounded because of how racist and how wrong it was.
I was embarrassed for the client, but I was not powerless.
It was a small account, so I got lucky again that I could afford to stand on my principles. I informed the client that if his racist speech against Windz, or anyone on my team, was going to continue that we would terminate our relationship. The client backed down and apologized.
But it didn’t last.
Now, every little thing was a major problem for the client, and he had resumed his anger, though he kept personal insults and racist remarks out of it for now.
It was clear that this client, too, wasn’t going to last. So, we decided to end our contract. The client gave us no quarrel. He had already started with someone new.
Even though the client refused to pay his last bills, we were fine with it, because we had learned so much about what can happen with clients who can get particularly volatile. It turned out that the lessons we learned from that client became the most valuable thing we got from him.
Competition between the major BPO suppliers is so fierce for large contracts from major US companies that much is overlooked on the path to winning contracts.
The suppliers’ goal is to win contracts and make as much money as possible. So, more often than not the things that customers on the phone can do that are harmful to Agents aren’t even addressed in contracts between BPO suppliers and their clients.
No one wants to admit that some Americans’ latent frustrations can turn racist when they’re trying to get their problems solved through outsourcing or a customer service call.
What’s worse is that the BPO suppliers are merely following the direction of their clients and never acknowledge the conditions for abuse that Globalism has created — especially when it comes to what is happening on the phones.
Every call may be recorded, but very few are listened to.
Worse — Agents already feel shat upon in so many ways: wages, short-term contracts, lack of training, no advancement, and toxic work environments. What’s one more indignity?
The “Agent Journey” is an emerging term in the call center industry but one that almost no one is talking about. Instead, the industry has been talking about the concept of the “customer journey” and how, if you master it, you can profit.
But, not many are willing to acknowledge or understand how good the customer journey can be if first, the Agent’s Journey is also good.
ABOR #6 which states “You shall never be subject to racism” is one of the four major rights in the Agent Bill of Rights (in addition to #5, #7 and #9) that ensure that the people who are our Agents have a positive, productive and good Agent Journey at Rethink Staffing. These rights help us ensure that we are delivering “Outsourcing that Outperforms” to our clients.
For anyone to perform well at whatever they do, they have to feel safe in their work environment. This not only refers to physical safety (which is almost assumed these days — though not guaranteed — see here), but also to psychological safety — knowing that they can fail, change things, and create. It’s the kind of security that drives superior performance in the workplace.
Like it or not, when customer service calls from Americans began to be answered by Indians and Filipinos, the blatantly foreign accents that customers encountered on the phone, and the rigid rules Agents had to follow, made lots of Americans mad.
Some dealt with that anger with grace, others not so much. Unfortunately, xenophobia and its underlying racism came across with sufficient frequency, such that the industry began to have a certain reputation.
And that reputation was for angry people screaming at foreigners on the phone, demanding supervisors, to “talk to someone in the US,” and in general fulfilling the stereotypes of the “Angry Americans.”
I’m in no way saying that people embarking on an anger-fueled rant shouldn’t treat people with respect because they can’t help it. People in any given situation, no matter what they’re feeling, should treat others with respect, of course.
But the conditions for decency breaking down in the interactions between Agents and Customers are party manufactured by the way in which the BPO supplier and their clients have contracted with each other. And as always in this relationship, the Agent suffers.
At Rethink Staffing, we incorporate our Agent Bill of Rights into our contracts with our clients. We reserve the right to end calls when it’s clear that the customer is racist, which occurs most frequently with the use of racial slurs directed at the Agent because the customer’s frustration has boiled over.
This is a bold step for a BPO supplier. Because ending the call with a customer that’s hurled racial epithets does two key things:
First, when the customer is hung up on, what they’re mad at is our client — not us. The customer doesn’t know that we’re taking calls for the company they’re doing business with. So, the damage done is not to us, but our client. That means it’s their bottom line — not ours, that’s hurting from ceasing communication with this customer.
The raison d’etre for the BPO industry is that we’re supposed to create value for our customers, not destroy it for them. So, we’re taking a big step when we say to a client that we’ll ruin a little of your value by the way that your customers treat our Agents.
Second, it really angers the customer, of course, when told that they’re such a bad human being by the way they’re treating another human being.
The natural question is “who are we” to be making that judgment Here’s where human beings can constantly surprise you.
Yes, some people call back and simply yell louder at the poor Agent who happens to catch that next call. But, the majority of people either don’t call back, or they call back to apologize.
And, here’s where this part of what we do at Rethink staffing gives me hope for humanity. The people that don’t call back are probably just embarrassed. That one’s easy to understand. Better to let their anger recede into the past and move on.
But, those that do call back, and apologize, is where I have hope.
They’ve calmed down and realized that screaming at someone half a world away, just trying to do their jobs, is not the person they want to be.
Kudos to them! I hope more people follow their example.
Those apologies tell me that we’re doing the right thing for our Agents, our Clients, and even those mad customers.
They tell me that there is a better way. That human dignity can exist in our industry. All it takes is a few simple, very humanistic rights.
I’m proud that ABOR #6 stands up for that hope. I believe that the more people know about these rights, the more will understand that it’s the right way to do business.