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New Comedy Outsourced Hits the Contact Center Funny Bone

NBC’s new show Outsourced, which focuses on a call center manager who must move to India to keep his job, premiered last week.  We at ICMI are pretty excited that call centers are now getting the primetime treatment they have always deserved.  That being said, you can check back here each week for episode recaps, along with some insight from our industry experts.  Though Outsourced may be just a sitcom, there are plenty of lessons about what you should or shouldn’t be doing at your call center that can be gleaned from the show.
Episode 1 begins with Todd, our main character, coming back to his fictitious Mid America Novelties call center after receiving management training.  (Perhaps he was at one of ICMI’s training courses?)  Anyway, he walks into the call center to find it deserted.  He is met by his boss, who breaks the news to him:  The entire call center was laid off, and Todd must go to India to manage the company’s new offshore call center.
Once in India, Todd is greeted by Rajiv, his assistant manager.  In the least subtle way possible, Rajiv makes it clear that he’s gunning for Todd’s job.  As if that weren’t warm enough of a welcome, Todd is then introduced to his new staff.  The scene involves a lot of awkward silence, particularly from one agent, named Madhuri, who talks in barely a whisper.
After Rajiv takes Todd to their executive suite (just two desks at the front of the call center), Todd introduces his staff to the novelties they’ll be selling.  They don’t seem too excited about selling novelties like fake vomit and similar objects, and they put Todd on the spot by asking why Americans like such things.  But that is the least of his problems.
The center gets a few calls which don’t go over so well.  Then, Rajiv tells Todd that he hired Madhuri just so he can fire her, hoping that would motivate the rest of the team to do well.  As for the lack of call center prowess among the rest of the team?  Rajiv purposely hired less than stellar performers as part of his plot to take over Todd’s job.
Despite these challenges, Todd is determined to succeed.  He gives a pep talk where he invokes the Bad News Bears, a reference lost on the team.  Still, he perseveres and encourages everyone to make at least one sale that day.  He makes sure to add that he isn’t threatening them, because he has faith that they can do it, unlike Rajiv.  
Through the magic of a television montage, we see one successful call after another.  Even Madhuri was able to convince her customer to purchase fake vomit in addition to his fake dog poop.  
This happy ending may seem a little farfetched.  But, as with any sitcom, unrealistic situations are the norm.  Still, there is a lot that one can learn about the right way (and wrong way) to run a call center.  That’s why ICMI’s Macklin Martin, Executive Director of Consulting, is here to answer a few questions and provide some expert insight:
Q.  We saw Todd struggle to gain acceptance by his new team of call center agents.  What advice would you give to someone who comes to a center as an outsider (whether new to a country or just new to the company)?
A. As the show astutely conveys, call centers can be an overwhelming environment for those unfamiliar with them: the fast pace of phones that don’t stop ringing, the constant hum of conversation and, of course, an intense focus on the un-seen and somewhat nebulous customer by all.  How do you start? I liken it to one of my favorite childhood video games, Frogger.  You just have to hop in!  No matter what your role, whether recruiter, CSR or CEO, start by sitting down and taking some calls side by side with a veteran CSR, listen, watch the screens and ask questions. The beauty of call centers is that the learning starts immediately, the moment you plug in. Everyone has something to gain from listening to customers - what they are purchasing and what they like and don’t like about your products and services. 
Q.  The team at Mid America Novelties had a hard time understanding the products they were hired to sell, and that showed in their first few calls.  How can you get your staff excited, or at least knowledgeable, about the company’s products and services?
A. I recently read a great book that describes how customers develop an emotional connection to products and services, even the service providers themselves.  The emotional connections are the real link to keeping that customer loyal and engaged.  Leading research by Gallop and others illustrate that employees are not much different.  We want our employees to feel a sense of connection and ownership for our products and services.  How do we build that?  It varies depending on your products and services, of course.  Some of my clients in the footwear business provide employees with samples of their lines to wear and even decorate the call center floor.  Another client, who maintains a warranty contact center for household hardware, provides employees with tours of its manufacturing facility and provides online knowledge tools for CSRs.  Regardless of the environment, business sector or product or service, investing in training is key.  The best organizations take time to thoroughly train employees on products and service offerings while also providing updates on new services in addition to coaching and role-playing with CSRs to practice how to best discuss these offering with customers.
Q.  Rajiv had an interesting strategy for motivating the team – hiring someone he thinks will fail and firing her, hoping that will scare everyone else into working hard.  While this is clearly not the best idea, what effective motivational methods can you recommend?
A. Leadership, leadership, leadership!  More so than any other trick or gimmick, good day-to-day leadership on the part of the contact center supervisor is the best way to keep an employee engaged and motivated.  Whether through coaching, providing career guidance and direction or just being an enabler to help the CSR service the customer appropriately, well trained and developed entry level leaders offer the best defense against lackluster CSR performance. 
Q.  As mentioned above, it seems a little farfetched that Todd could turn things around at the call center so quickly.  But are there some methods you can suggest for getting quick results?
A. Whether customer or shareholder, CSR or CEO, we all want the same things: efficient processes and a good value for our investment of time, capital or other resources.  As a consultant, I work with organizations primarily to evolve their customer service processes.  It is here in the service processes that most organizations have the greatest opportunity to increase value for all: Customer, CSR, CEO and shareholder.  Start by looking at the processes with the biggest volumes that impact the most customers or drive the greatest costs, which could be a call type or literally all calls themselves.  Then, work with those closest to the process to uncover opportunities and unrecognized capabilities, involve key stakeholders, measure for a baseline and test your improvements in a controlled pilot to ensure that your are managing change and not the reverse. 
Well that wraps it up for Episode 1 of Outsourced.  Come back each week for a new recap and insight about the show.  And if you happened to miss it on TV, just go here to watch the episode online and find a bunch of Outsourced extras.
Adam Mandelbaum is Associate Editor and Community Services Associate for ICMI. [email protected]