Cleaning Off Telemarketing's Tarnish

By TMCnet.com  |  September 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

It only takes a few, tarnished pieces for observers to assume that the rest of the silverware is junk. These observations go for a wide range of other goods and services. That includes, unfortunately, telemarketing and BPO/teleservices.

This, specifically our, industry has long had a deservedly tarnished reputation on two scores. First: with many consumers and their advocates and lawmakers for pushy, annoying and sometimes lawbreaking live agent and automated messaging calling on behalf of its clients. Second: with communities for being terrible employers with low pay, minimal or no benefits, poor training and lousy supervision leading to high turnover, who shutter their doors as soon as the contracts end and/or the taxpayer-financed location incentives runs out.

The first issue set has been largely dealt with by stringently enforced legislation and regulations that have done the industry a favor by forcing it to clean up its act, if only to prevent it from being publicly caned. Even so there are still outfits – and by extension their clients – that still annoy consumers and who carelessly or intentionally violate the laws.

The second set needs more work. Telemarketing and BPO/teleservices firms’ sometimes poor reputations as businesses have given politicians more reasons to swing at them. One individual who did that won election in a Canadian community that had attracted several contact centers both in-house and BPO.

Sadly, there continue to be industry companies whose management mistreats their employees. Teleperformance (News - Alert) USA had to pay almost $2 million in back overtime wages following a U.S. Department of Labor investigation in 2010. And just recently, IQT bolted the doors of its Canadian operations, throwing over 1,000 staff onto the street from centers in Oshawa, Ontario and in Laval and Trois Rivières, Quebec with no notice, no pay or as required in Canada, vacation pay. Meanwhile it had snagged a deal to move operations to Nashville, Tenn., aided, reported CityNews Toronto, by a $1.6 million incentives package.

“Management and employees at the Laval office confirmed Friday they found the doors shut and communications dead when they arrived for the early shift, and police were on hand,” The (Montreal Quebec, Canada) Gazette reported July 16th. “They said they had not been paid for two weeks and they had no prior warning of the shutdown.”

If job-seeking Nashville residents had any reason to be overjoyed they were soon proven wrong. CityNews Toronto revealed on July 20th that the U.S. deal had gone south.

“We are dismayed about what happened in Canada and don't think workers anywhere should be treated that way,” city official Matt Wiltshire said a statement released on Tuesday July 19th.Yes, business needs change. Teleservices companies are, at their core, contractors that ramp up and down with clients’ programs. This means staffing levels must and do change if there is not sufficient work coming in over a period of time – each responsible outfit factors in lulls – to keep employees on the phones. There is a therefore a stronger risk of layoffs for job seekers if they sign on with these companies.

There is no excuse for IQT’s behavior though. The firm disrespected the rights of those who worked for it. Its moves smacks of panic-driven management who could not face the consequences of the events and their acts, like those of hit-and-run drivers.

There is a need for tougher laws to offset such short/no-notice closures on employees, and on taxpayers who must pick up the added welfare tabs. Companies should be required to form self-insurance pools – with the amounts appropriate to the risks in each sector – with payouts to laid-off workers. Alternatively, if firms receive tax incentives they should post bonds.

Trade associations such as the ATA, ATSI, DMA and others must do their self-regulatory share. They should publicly censure, if not throw out, members who break the law, alert authorities if they hear of possible wrongdoing and let go staff without paying severance. Clients must do their part by quit buying mainly by price – you get what you pay for – and end being overly aggressive on results that lead to corners being cut. They can shop for vendors with good employee and compliance reputations.

The only way our industry can shine is by quickly detecting the spots and cleaning the wares. Doing so will demonstrate the value of the many fine BPO/teleservices companies that are there as businesses, employers and taxpayers, and the services they provide.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi