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Why Are US Airways, Others Bringing Contact Centers Back Onshore?

Brian Cantor

Call Center IQ’s report on Google’s successful new call center initiativewas more than a mere reminder that the traditional customer service channel remains relevant. It was an endorsement from the "cool kid on the block" that the call center can be a very powerful, if not the most powerful, ticket to customer satisfaction. It did for the oft-criticized contact channel what hot, young celebrities do for designers when they wear their fashions on the red carpet.

If Google, a famously-customer-minded company that made billions while relying on an email support system, was willing to publicly speak to the value of the traditional call center, what company would have any business not taking notice? Who could possibly claim the contact center was en route to extinction?

A key takeaway from Google’s call center case study was its commitment to an entirely in-house customer service force. Believing is own reps essential to maintaining the service quality and customer-centric culture, Google assures it has the internal resources (at least 1,000 employees) to handle 10,000 weekly calls from 60 countries.

Google’s aversion to outsourcing is hardly exclusive. Not a week seemingly goes by without a company announcing plans to bolster up its American contact center operations—US Airways and Carbonite are among the recognizable brands that recently confirmed intentions to bring contact center jobs back onshore.

Granted, Google’s issue is not with international contact centers, per se. It simply wants to make sure that anyone who addresses an inquiry from a Google customer is a Google employee. It wants to assure its culture is palpable on every facet of the customer experience.

But whether considering Google’s in-house center or the countless organizations who have trumpeted their onshoring plans, their strategies share a common result: giving the brand more autonomy over its customer service operations. Regardless of whether or not they share Google’s reasons for wanting to "own" the customer experience, companies like US Airways and Carbonite are indeed working to bring customer service closer to the organization’s chest.

And, so that raises an important question: why should companies want to bring their call centers in-house (or at least back onshore) in 2011?

Given the positive impact of Google’s strategy, it would seem a no-brainer that other major brands would follow suit. When the agents are employees who care about the brand, care about the quality of the interactions and espouse the corporate culture, customers win. Simple, yet compelling.

Yet "customer experience" is often not the motivator, let alone the sole motivator, behind decisions to bring contact center jobs back to America. The aforementioned US Airways initiative, for example, is the result of a deal the airline struck with a labor union. It is thus a corporate, political play—not necessarily a customer-centric one.

In its press release on the matter, US Airways also touted the recent rollout of a new IVR system that, combined with the existing range of self-service options, should maximize the efficiency of customer service interactions. Though presented in a very customer-centric light (it makes the experience easier for customers), it still raises an interesting question: in order to justify bringing call center staff back onshore and/or back in-house, will organizations need compensatory "efficiency boosters" (like great IVR systems) intact? Outsourced call centers have long trumpeted their greater cost-efficiency; is the advantage still staggering enough to make the customer experience benefits of in-house customer support too costly to pursue?

Even a company like Carbonite, which seemingly "gets" the importance of having the "right people in place" when customers call with pressing concerns, still presents an alternative reason for bringing its call center back to America—nationalistic public relations.

"[We] are happy to have helped create new U.S. jobs as we strive to deliver the best experience for Carbonite's customers," reads the company’s press release, which repeatedly makes mention of the 150 workers employed by the American call center.

The emphasis on the PR-friendly approach to hiring domestically suggests that it was a key determinant in the onshoring strategy. If, for instance, it was categorically-proven that call center agents in an Asian country are better-equipped to deliver a favorable customer experience, would Carbonite have sent out a press release boasting that it sent 150 jobs overseas?

Clearly, the answer is no, and that raises serious question about what Carbonite sees as the true value of its onshoring endeavor.

Whether in weekly press releases from major companies, in sales pitches from onshoring vendors and in conference and webinar presentations, it common to hear support for bringing call centers back to America, often under the actual corporate auspices.

But it is decidedly less certain that those who speak favorably of such a strategy will begin and end their case with "it’s better for the customer experience." Even when that certainly appears to be the case, given the expectation of high-quality, highly-responsive, culture-driven customer service in many industries, it seems to take more to turn onshoring and insourcing from good ideas to actual practices.

Should that be the case? We turn this discussion over to you—in your industry/line of business, how do the cost-efficiency benefits of outsourcing and offshoring compare to the customer experience benefits of insourcing and onshoring? Are improvements in IVR technology, virtual contact centers and at-home agent strategies really required to tip the scale in favor of bringing the call center home? Weigh in below!

CALLING CALL CENTER LEADERS & PROFESSIONALS: How is the rise of the multi-channel call center changing the game; does it make outsourcing more or less desirable? These topics and more will be discussed at the best call center industry event in the world—the 7thCall Center Summit! Details & Registration!