Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

I rang a company's call centre the other day, and the experience was exemplary: helpful, knowledgeable, charming. The firm was a client of ours, so I asked what they did to make their telephone operators so unbelievably good. 'Um, to be perfectly honest, we probably overpay them.'

Their call centre was 20 miles from a large city. Staff didn't have to travel for an hour each day to find reasonably paid work, so they stayed for decades and became highly proficient. Training and recruitment costs were negligible. And it wasn't just me they impressed: customer satisfaction was astoundingly high. The staff weren't really a 'cost' -- they were a significant reason for the company's success.

Alas, modern capitalism dictates that it will only be a matter of time before some beady-eyed consultants notice that a few employees are still enjoying pleasant jobs and reasonable wages and so pitch up at a board meeting with a PowerPoint deck entitled 'Rightsizing customer service costs through offshoring and resource management' or similar £250-an-hour MBA ejaculate. Within months, either the entire operation will be moved to Slovenia, or the once-happy denizens of the call centre will be forced on to zero-hours contracts. Soon nobody will phone to place orders because they can't understand a bloody word Zvezdana is saying, but that doesn't matter because when the company next presents its quarterly earnings to analysts at JPDeutscheSachs one chart will have a nice little bullet point saying: 'Labour cost reduction through call centre relocation/downsizing.'

Today, the principal activity of any publicly held company is rarely the invention and creation of valuable products to satisfy market need. Management attention is largely directed towards the invention of plausible-sounding efficiency narratives to satisfy financial analysts in banks, many of whom know nothing about the businesses they claim to analyse beyond what they can read on a spreadsheet. …

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