By this point, Jenny was sick of what happened every time she said the lie. It was so predictable but was undoubtedly responsible for a lot of the misery she felt whenever she came to work. Why did she have to lie every time she took a call?
Callers from the U.S. knew that Jenny wasn’t in the U.S. It wasn’t just Jenny’s accent that gave it away, most customers in the U.S. naturally assumed that their calls to their bank, cell phone company or insurance company weren’t being answered in the U.S. They had been through this too many times before.
For Jenny, she always winced when it happened. “Where are you?” The caller would ask. Per her training, “I’m in the U.S.” she would say, cringing as the words robotically exited her mouth. “Where in the U.S.?” The caller would say charitably, if they didn’t first say “I can hear your accent, you’re lying.”
Jenny was trained to make up someplace she dreamed of visiting someday, to get to know that place in the off chance that she could make it believable when asked. “I’m in Los Angeles,” she would say, praying that the caller was from somewhere else, lest they want to discuss something contemporary happening in L.A., her inability to do so meaning that she would be promptly found out.
She had always dreamed of going to Los Angeles, but when she studied the beautiful things that Los Angeles had, it occurred to her that she would have to learn about these places to fake it on the phone, but the chances of her actually getting there were remote. That made the lie, of course, even more ridiculous, and the fact that she had to do it, cruel.
Sometimes the caller would freak out and say the words “you’re lying,” or sometimes they would just let it go and get on with whatever they were calling about. But all times they knew Jenny was lying. On the surface, her job was to give good customer service — that’s supposedly why she was collecting her paycheck.
But the way it made Jenny feel was that her paycheck was really a bribe to get Jenny to lie when she was asked the dreaded question. Why did it have to be this way?
When the outsourcing industry first came to the Philippines in 1997, it took a while for the average American consumer to realize what was going on. Even though customer service calls had been handled in India at about the same time, there weren’t so many companies yet outsourcing their calls to these two countries to the point where a large number of American consumers noticed or understood.
At first, companies didn’t hide where agents were or who they were. They thought it was a novelty, and a good thing, that they were bringing so many jobs to the developing world.
Fast forward a few years, and there was lots of talk in the business press of how American technology and call centers were quickly building a new middle class in India and the Philippines.
When you look at the economic statistics from those two countries from the period of 1997–2005, the headlines were mostly right. But the cost savings to client companies (even with BPO supplier margin) was tremendous, that explosive growth was assured. The train that had left the station was merely going to keep going faster and faster — there was no stopping it.
But about the time the middle class was emerging, two trends started happening. First, as the industry grew exponentially, naturally the industry’s demand for labor grew and grew.
Therefore, the best English speakers were either finding higher paying employment (either as managers or in other jobs that weren’t on the phones) or that the quality of English being spoken on the phones started to drop, based on who was left to answer those calls.
But the calls still had to be answered, so the new recruits coming in spoke English worse and worse when they started. This degraded the customer experience, and American consumers began to notice.
Second, the volume of calls themselves now being handled overseas grew so pervasive, that not only were companies directly investing in these countries, but the overall volume of calls being taken in India and the Philippines grew large.
By the mid-2000s, it was hard to find an American who had called their bank or cell phone company and not spoken to someone overseas. Calls handled overseas, previously the exception, it had now become the norm.
Once the customer backlash started, managers from BPO suppliers were at a loss of what to do. Clients didn’t want their customers to know that they were outsourcing overseas, primarily to lower cost in order to drive profits.
Customers just wanted a good customer experience, it didn’t matter to them what it cost. If they discovered the company they bought from was only interested in saving money when they had to serve them, customer’s would be mad, and often were.
So BPO suppliers did the logical thing: To keep Clients happy, they hid the location of their call centers. And to try and keep Customers happy, they coached Agents on many things about the U.S., had them adopt fake-but-American sounding names, and had agents create their own false backstories about where the Agents were from in the U.S.
In short, they institutionalized lying and paid people to do it.
Lost in the macroeconomic discussion of the why and how of this institutionalized lying happened is what it did to the Agents. Let’s first get the idea of “but the Agents knew they’d be asked to lie, and they agreed to the job” out of the way.
Remember, when this all started there were billions of poor people in the developing world (now it’s just under a billion). A job is a lifeline in most of these countries to most of these people, so they had a choice, but not if they wanted to live.
In your daily work — do you have to lie? Is it required as a part of your job? Do you get training on it?
In general, here in America, lying in business is not only frowned upon, but it can also have severe repercussions because trust is generally considered everything in business.
Imagine what it would feel like if you were in a situation where your job was to solve someone’s problems, but you had to start out the relationship with them with a lie? What kind of trust do you think there would be in the relationship? Do you think they would trust you to solve their problem?
ABOR#7: “You will never hide who or where you are” was born because this culture of institutional lying is not just bad for the Agents, but it’s also bad for the quality of service you may be rendering to your customers.
The title of all of these rights may start with the word “Agent,” but they are as much about creating a system of rules that produce better outcomes for everyone in our industry — Agent, Client, Customer and BPO supplier.
Let’s talk about the Agents first. For them, it’s actually pretty simple. Daily or habitual lying is corrosive for most people — literally, it floods the brain with chemicals that are painful. Yes, some people can make the decision to do it, and simply make it a part of who they are, with no ill effects. But science tells us that constant lying is damaging not just to the brain but to a person’s psyche.
There are already so many other things that are bad about the typical BPO workplace, that requiring agents to lie adds yet one more stressor. It’s toxic and corrosive and causes a significant amount of stress in the way they live their daily lives (with all the attendant health and work environment problems that go along with those elevated stress levels).
Further, most of the agents in the call centers are young — in many cases, the call center job may have been their first after graduating. What does this institutionalized lying teach them about the way the world, the way that the business world works? Is this a good lesson for a generation of young people to learn, or a bad one?
Obviously, this is not the lesson we want to be teaching these young people, and many of these societies, particularly in the Philippines and India, have governments rife with institutionalized, petty corruption. Petty corruption always involves lying and the acceptance of lying. What the BPO industry is doing is simply their form of petty corruption.
But, it’s a bad situation for Agents, and most importantly, it’s bad for business.
Service, or the concept of it, is inherently built on trust. The customers call, trusting (not hoping) that their problem will be solved. The best companies value that trust from their customers and treat it as such taking it very seriously. A breach of trust means lost customers.
When an Agent gets the “where are you?” Question from a customer, and then is required to lie, the chances that the call will end in a quality solution for the customer go down dramatically. Even if the Agent does solve the customer’s problem, the experience feels unfulfilling and empty to both the Agent and the customer. OK, I got my problem solved, but at what cost?
But it’s not just the destruction of trust. The power dynamic between the Agent and the customer becomes instantly imbalanced when the Agent lies, and when the customer knows it. Think about when you catch your kids in a lie — any power they may have had, equal or otherwise, in the interaction or relationship is lost by them because of that lie. It’s no different on the phones.
That lie instantly puts the agent on the defensive, destroys any confidence in the Agent with which the customer may have come to the call, and makes it so much harder for them to satisfy the customer, even when they’ve solved the customer’s problem. So at the macro level, what has happened is “okay… great, the problem is solved” and the call is recorded as a success, but the customer hasn’t been served, and the client’s brand certainly hasn’t been burnished.
It is well known that brands have value — tradeable, financial value that many companies have worked hard to build. So what does it say that in thousands of the most basic interactions brands have with their customers, they’re choosing suppliers who train agents to lie regularly? It’s ironic that to save money by moving work overseas, the company may actually be destroying value instead.
Is that the type of brand you want to work for? Most of us would say no, and to be fair, many brands have realized this and changed their policies. Some have simply brought work back to the US when the economics make sense. Others have taken the reins off their BPO suppliers, and they have chosen to see what happens when Agents are truthful.
They’ve reported that clients are getting better outcomes, and the stats are proving it. This is all good news, it means that not hiding who or where you are is the right thing to do, not just for the Agent who’s fielding those calls, but also for the client and the BPO supplier. Client, customer, Agent and BPO supplier — all in all not lying — It’s just good business.