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Hope For Some U.S. Tech Workers

Technology companies require a very special breed of person to staff customer support centers. These specialists must be able to diffuse caller's frustrations caused by a breakdown of a complicated computer system, and then be able to sort through all the complex issues to fix the problem. Finding these very talented people is not an easy task, and in the hiring process most managers look for a high degree of technical aptitude. But there is more to it!

Customer support requires something very special; it must include “emotional intelligence.” The ability to effectively communicate and to empathize with the customer's situation is a key differentiator. Aptitude and help desk training in both technical and specialized customer contact skills are critical for a successful tech support desk person. The importance of this vital position has mostly gone unrecognized by top management until recently. The tide is turning, as systems become more complex, companies demand around-the-clock efficiencies, all this as support costs escalate.

In an apparent effort to control costs, technology companies have moved their customer support functions to India (see related BusinessWeek article) and other offshore locations. After an onslaught of customer complaints, Dell (article) has stopped routing corporate customers to a technical support call center in Bangalore, India. U.S.-based tech workers will once again handle these customer support functions in Texas, Idaho and Tennessee. It’s critical to remember that Dell gets 85% of its revenues from business customers, and it has a good track record of listening to its customers.

The fact that people speak English in India does not cut it any more for some U.S. customers, as there are many situations when a cultural breakdown occurs. This change in attitude by Dell is potentially very enlightening for U.S. tech workers. The realization is that there are companies in the United States that are listening to customer complaints. But what’s really refreshing is to see these companies actually take corrective measures to fix the problem, thereby helping U.S. tech workers with their change in attitude.

The challenges facing U.S. tech workers are not going away because of the tremendous financial pressures on CEOs to move to low cost production models. Reducing business expenses is always a top priority for executives running a company. For example, IBM (article) recently announced it is moving 4,700 tech worker jobs to India, and these are mostly development positions. Tech workers must continue their education in spite of news like this from companies like IBM, and keep at the top of the learning curve to survive. Competition for jobs will only increase over time as the worldwide talent pool grows in size and works for less money.
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But no matter how much education a technology worker acquires, the grim reality is that the big salaries once paid to most of them will never really come back. This is very distressing for many workers to fully understand.

I spent all my professional life in Silicon Valley, and many of my friends are having a very difficult time accepting this painful reality. You build your lifestyle around a certain level of income, and when the income drops dramatically, so does your lifestyle. It’s as simple as that. Easy to say, but hard to do.

Hopefully, other U.S. companies will begin to listen to their customer’s complaints and follow Dell’s example. If the customer support function was a problem for Dell, you can believe it’s a problem for other tech companies as well. Given the importance of Dell as a market leader, this could become a trend as other company’s customers express dissatisfaction when dealing with outsourced support services. I would not be surprised to see Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and others follow Dells lead in the near future.

The tipping point comes down to the reality of wanting to support your customers in the best manner possible, no matter where that location is. Dell has the good business sense to recognize this, and once again the company is leading the pack. The tide could be turning in favor of the U.S. tech worker, for these job functions anyway.

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William Dollar is a Senior Contributing Editor for the Wisconsin Technology Network, and has his own consulting company at www.billdollar.com. You can also contact him at bill@wistechnology.com.

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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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