How We Export Contempt

When we outsource call centers, we not only outsource work, we outsource customer contempt.

Greetings from sunny California. It’s my experience transporting here that spurred this week’s topic.

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Time to Check-In

A day before a recent flight with my girlfriend, I received a ‘time to check in’ email from Frontier Airlines, prompting me to check us both in. In navigating the check-in flow, I noticed that my last name had mistakenly been added to my girlfriend’s name, such that it read “FIRST, LAST, HOLST (my last name)”. Knowing the inflexibility of the TSA and the problems that could arise if her boarding pass didn’t match her ID, I realized I’d need to call Frontier to sort it out.

Frontier Airlines’ headquarters are in Denver, CO. Despite this, the call center I’d be connected with is located half a world away. Firms export this work abroad to save on labor costs stemming from lower wages, fewer benefits, and less employee protections. As of 2018, 14.4 million workers are employed overseas by US affiliate companies. The work is categorized as low skill, which belies the expertise these workers employ in managing the exportation of Americans’ contempt.

To start, I navigated a phone tree that’s in place to disguise the fact that regardless of what combination of push-button responses you enter, you end up routed to the same call center. After reaching the “please wait while we connect you with an agent” stage of the tree, I was placed on hold for somewhere around 30 minutes.

My call, and mounting frustration, was then shipped off to the Philippines to be handled by a BPO call-center firm contracted by Frontier. After an additional 20 minutes that included conversations with two representatives, five more minutes of holding, rephrasing the issue multiple times, and one representative wrongly stating there was an issue with my TSA pre-check number, things were resolved.

Emotion, but make it labor

Each step of the way, like reticent whales, my impatience and anger came to the surface, but refused to breach. With each new explanation of the predicament, my voice grew not angrier, but firmer so as to demonstrate my frustration without resorting to anger. The person on the other side of the call must’ve sensed this, but throughout dealing with the ding dong on the other end who refused to accept the responses they’d been trained to give, maintained an upbeat nature and refused to crack.

In her book on the subject, The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild defines emotional labor as:

...the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.

In studying the concept, Hochschild looked closely at two jobs specifically - flight attendants and debt collectors. The former because attendants’ job is to enhance the flying experience through friendly expressions like tone of voice, politeness, smiling, and generally the need to be overly nice. The debt collector for the opposite reason. The role requires them to badger the customer and impart on them a sense of guilt, wearing them down so they’ll relent and pay their debt. In short, the collector must be meaner than usual.

Hochschild contends that this labor is stressful and comes with a cost: workers estrange themselves from what roots them to others--emotions themselves and the physical expressions of those emotions. When a hotel clerk smiles for patrons, who is it for? Herself, or the guests and the hotel? Effectively, the smile and positive affectations are commoditized, transformed into ancillary products for consumption by the hotel guest. In performing emotional labor, employees risk dampening their ability to use emotions to navigate the world outside of work. 

Where does the contempt go?

In exporting the contempt that accompanies these jobs overseas, these US-based firms make a tacit statement about who is and who isn’t deserving of American customers’ scorn. This implies a superiority of the US over the country of the call center employee. Moreover, the negative side effects of these roles are also exported. Similar to the outsourcing of certain types of mining and manufacturing which have detrimental environmental effects in home countries, as well as the massive export of arms and the attendant violence abroad, the use of outsourced call centers is a source of psychological and spiritual pollution from the US that disproportionately affects the receiving country.

Further, exporting this contempt is a statement about what these companies value. In outsourcing these jobs and simultaneously choosing to run crappy customer service, US firms betray that the cost savings are more valuable than the ire, stress, and resultant damage on either side of the phone line. 

Over the course of our call, the customer service agent and I realized that whatever resources Frontier had given us were inadequate to make the fix. To sort out the issue, I stopped heeding Frontier’s rigid troubleshooting, and they abandoned their script. In the end, it had been a browser issue—Google Chrome had autofilled my last name into the ‘Suffix’ field of my girlfriend’s boarding pass, making it look like my last name was hers. All us idiots have to go somewhere, and sadly, I wasn’t the first, nor the last of the day.

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Deep Fix: Startups, making money, and doing good are all filtered through author Alex Olshonsky's philosophical lens of addiction and thoughtful introspection in Startups and Cocaine Dinners. For more of the philosophy underpinning the Deep Fix community, subscribe here.

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