Between really bad press (here and here) and bankruptcy (here), large contact center outsourcers have seen a rough last few months. Bad press for outsourcers spells trouble for and affects the brands that contract with them: Consumers will react regardless of whether the news comes from the company itself or up the supply chain. Negative publicity, of course, is much bigger than just a contact center or customer service problem. It’s a dilemma that all brands can get caught up in. Regardless of where an issue stems from, brands must convey the message that “Yes, we are both addressing this issue and actively working to improve” to consumers.

Now, let’s dig into those two articles published two months ago in October. The first linked article examines the working conditions at an Amazon Ring contact center in the Philippines. The second linked article discusses the challenges faced by contract workers at Arise Virtual Solutions and, more broadly, the work-at-home and gig customer service model. In TL;DR fashion, essential customer service reps have endured poor working conditions (i.e., minimal COVID-19 safety measurements and/or strict contractual agreements) in order to provide the high-quality service that consumers expect today. While business process outsourcers clearly share a portion of the responsibility here, we don’t want to let the brands using these services off the hook, either.

Brands choose to work with outsourcers for a multitude of reasons, such as cost reduction, added scale, business continuity, and expertise, to name a few. Arise’s model, for example, hires primarily contractors who work part-time. This makes it easier for Arise to scale up a program if a demand spike occurs; it just needs to convince those part-timers to work more hours, rather than having to recruit, hire, and train new agents in a hurry. This on-demand model is great for brands; it means that agent support can be swiftly scaled up or down, and this is increasingly pertinent due to pandemic-induced contact volume fluctuations. As one of the aforementioned articles highlights, however, what’s best for the brand can come at a cost to customer service reps. Because they are technically contractors, these agents typically pay for their own equipment, pay to take a brand certification course, and/or undergo days’ worth of (unpaid) training yet sometimes struggle to make the economics of these programs work. There are two items to unpack here:

    1. The ProPublica article is more so an attack on the gig economy than it is on Arise or contact centers themselves. Many of the outlined agents’ struggles are struggles that everyday gig workers face, whether at Arise or Uber or Upwork. Look at Uber and Lyft: Pre-pandemic, many cities saw a surplus of drivers, which meant that some workers could not make as much as they would like to.
    2. While Arise and its ilk have several unique value propositions, the flexible model that provides easy bursting capacity is a top one. If it didn’t work on its current model, its customers may have partnered with a different outsourcer. We need to remember that companies seeking to minimize operating costs hire outsourcers for labor arbitrage.

Top-down pressure from brands to outsourcers can result in unfair pressure or expectations from outsourcers to individual workers, yet brands with a desire to uphold companywide ethics or values do (or at least should) have an obligation to support these values within the supply chain, as well. This idea that brands are responsible for the ethical conduct in their supply chain applies well beyond outsourcing, of course. To see how the same concept plays out in the world of AI, check out this excellent research from my colleague Brandon Purcell.

It’s The Brands That Need To Own It And Be Proactive

The challenge for brands working with outsourcers is figuring out where this duty lies and how to exercise it — maybe it’s with third-party due diligence or periodic audits of the outsourcer. Regardless, outsourcers can’t be held entirely responsible for doing the job that they were chosen for and hired to do. Before jumping on the “Outsourcers treat workers badly” bandwagon, brands need to take a step back, look in the mirror, and realize where the pressure is coming from. If you are a mission-driven brand, this lack of self-examination could blow up in your face. The extent to which a brand bounces back from a calamity all boils down to marketing — specifically, the marketing immediately after and in the near term once the public learns about the problem. To minimize the effects of bad publicity, brands need to own what happened and proactively outline steps they are taking to prevent a similar situation down the line.


(Hailey Colin contributed to this blog.)