NBC's new sitcom Outsourced, which takes place at a call center in India, has riled audiences on both sides of the offshoring debate, from those who say the show stereotypes Indians to anti-offshoring activists who say it makes light of a serious issue. CIO.com got a sneak peek of the pilot episode and provides a "fact check" on what the show gets right and wrong about offshore call center work.
By Stephanie Overby
If you’re looking for a dose of reality, chances are you’re not tuning in to a television comedy from NBC to get your fix. After all, this is the network that brought us “Friends,” that hard-hitting look at what it’s like to be young, single and broke in New York City, in which a spaciously and elaborately decorated two bedroom apartment (with balcony), fountain dancing, and a cozy coffee shop on the corner stood in for a basement apartment, turnstile hopping and the greasy deli down the block.
So it should come as no surprise that NBC’s new sitcom “Outsourced, which is set at an offshore call center somewhere in India, tackles the highly politicized topic of offshoring in a similarly breezy—if at times snarky—manner. Outsourced premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. EDT on NBC.
Outsourced has riled audiences on both sides of the offshoring debate, from those who says the show stereotypes Indians to anti-offshoring activists who say it makes light of a serious issue.
The producers behind Outsourced say that the offshore call center is simply a “springboard” for some broad office comedy.
“It’s a funny and exaggerated take on outsourcing,” agrees Atul Vashistha, CEO of offshore outsourcing consultancy NeoAdvisory, who provided consultation to the show’s producers. “This tells you that outsourcing and India are now mainstream and part of pop culture.”
CIO.com got a sneak peak of tonight’s pilot episode to see how offshore outsourcing will be portrayed on the small screen. Leaving the political analysis to the activists and the ratings to the critics, herewith is our light-hearted “fact check” of some of the show’s scenes and premises. (Note: this story contains spoilers.)
NBC’s Outsourced: After completing a management training program to run the call center of a Kansas City, Mo.-based novelty goods manufacturer, top salesman Todd Dempsy arrives Monday morning to find the one-room call center empty. Todd’s boss tells him that Mid America Novelties “rightsized” the operation and shipped the call center jobs to India over the weekend.
Offshoring Reality: It’s true, weekends are typically when offshore outsourcing cutovers occur, says Vijay Gurbaxani, director of the Center for Research on IT and Organizations at the University of California Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business.
But unless Todd just got back from six weeks in Bora Bora (unlikely on a Kansas City call center manager’s salary), he would have known about it. It’s counterproductive to keep key employees in the dark, particularly given the knowledge transfer that must take place.
“There wouldn’t be a soul in the company who didn’t know about it weeks beforehand. Even the very best kept outsourcing secret is never a secret for long,” says Adam J. Strichman, founder of Mechanicsville, Va.-based outsourcing consultancy Sanda Partners.
NBC’s Outsourced: Mid America Novelties still wants Todd to run the call center, now in India. To get him to ship out, the company offers to promote him to vice president. Todd is given a choice: He either takes the job in India or gets to look for a new one.
Offshoring Reality: The VP title is a good incentive to get Todd to leave for India overnight. And, depending on the size and sophistication of the operation, it’s not uncommon for a company to send one of its own managers to a new offshore location for a six-month stint.
That said, Mid America Novelties’ call center, which takes inbound calls for orders of Humphrey the Humping Dog and mistletoe belts, doesn’t seem particularly large or complex. But perhaps Mid America Novelties really wants to make this offshore outsourcing relationship work, to which we say kudos.
NBC’s Outsourced: Todd arrives on the subcontinent and heads straight to the technology park in a yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaw taxi, exclaiming, “It’s like Frogger, but with real people.”
Offshoring Reality: Anyone’s who’s been to India will tell you this scene is an understated depiction of harrowing Indian traffic.
NBC’s Outsourced: The call center operation is cheerful and airy, with an open seating plan, brightly colored walls, a bustling cafeteria and a well-stocked break room. It actually seems more inviting than the drab office space Todd left behind. Oh, and there’s a cow that stands outside the window.
Offshoring Reality: The call center office on Outsourced looks like one of the “show and tell” call centers that vendors use for customer tours (the real call center work takes place elsewhere), says Sanda Partners’ Strichman.
As for the presence of the sacred cow on the fictional call center campus, it’s not just a slapdash effort to get a cheap laugh out of a cultural stereotype. There is some truth to it. Frances Karamouzis, IT services and outsourcing vice president of research for Gartner, says cows were fairly common on corporate campuses in the early days of offshoring to India. Some campuses still have them.
NBC’s Outsourced: Todd and his new team begin their work together. There are introductions, a little training and some practice calls. All the while the bright Indian sun shines through the windows.
Offshoring Reality: Working in the daytime to support a catalog company with an American customer base? Except for a few training days, the bulk of the work would take place after dark. “Invariably, these are night jobs,” Gurbaxani says.
NBC’s Outsourced: Another American call center manager befriends Todd in the cafeteria and, after warning him against consuming the hotter curry, says, “I hope you have some decent employees.” Todd responds: “Aren’t all the employees the same?” The veteran manager: “Not even close. You’ve got the A team and you’ve got the B team.” The veteran manager points to a group of Indians in dark suits who work in the Intel and Apple operations, and he explains, “They’ve been in the states. They’ve studied our accents.” (One comes over and does a pretty good Georgia-accented riff on grits.) The veteran manager then points to Todd’s B team: “They don’t know squat about America,” he says. “I wouldn’t unpack if I were you.”
Offshoring Reality. It’s true that call center representatives need to understand American culture in order to make small talk with clients, says Gartner’s Karamouzis. “I heard a call once where an American was referring to a strip mall, and the Indian guy thought he was talking about a place where people go to get naked,” he says.
But it’s unlikely that Indian call center employees will have taken trips to America to work with accent coaches. Nor is it likely that they can switch between a South Carolina drawl and a non-rhotic New England accent. Call center jobs are too low on the totem pole to warrant stateside training. But mature call center operations do provide accent neutralization training and cross cultural immersion programs in India.
As for the black suits? It’s too hot to wear them in India, says Gurbaxani.
NBC’s Outsourced: During the first two days of Mid America’s offshore outsourcing contract, very little time is spent on the phone.
Offshoring Reality: The show would need to kick the calls into high gear through the rest of the season to reflect the intensity of a real call center. “They put in long days on the phone almost all the time,” Strichman says. But that may not make for the best TV.
NBC’s Outsourced: Rajiv, the local assistant call center manager is eager to take Todd’s job when he leaves But his management techniques are a bit rustic. Rajiv has hired one employee—the always-whispering Madhuri—just to hire, fire and scare the others into top performance. “She doesn’t belong here anyway,” Rajiv tells Todd. “She’s of a lower caste.”
Offshoring Reality: “The caste system is totally irrelevant in these environments,” says Gurbaxani. “One does hear Indian managers say that American-style empowerment and motivation doesn’t work as well in India, and that yelling at employees does.”
But for the most part, Gurbaxani adds, the call center and BPO industry in India is a mature one with sophisticated management practices. And if this facility supports the likes of Apple and Intel, it’s unlikely that the old management-by-fear practice would flourish.
NBC’s Outsourced: Todd challenges what he now sees as his team of misfit toys to sell one add-on before the second day is out. In the end, even the low-talker Madhuri turns a fake-poo buyer into a fake-poo and fake-vomit buyer.
Offshoring Reality: Selling up is always the goal whether you’re pitching beer pong equipment or bank products, say offshore outsourcing experts, but it’s rarely as easy as the show depicts.
That said, Mid America Novelties’ price may be right. “It may be easy for that type of buyer. And the product is probably inexpensive,” says Patrice Gilles, managing director of customer care for outsourcing consultancy EquaTerra. “It is less easy when you deal in higher end products or services.”
NBC’s Outsourced: At the end of the second day—and the close of the premiere episode—Todd eschews his seat at the ex-pat managers’ table to sit with his call center reports to boost morale.
Offshoring Reality: Good move, Todd. “Indian culture is very welcoming,” says Gurbaxani. “Local workers would appreciate this.”