Organizations are always looking to cut costs to increase profits, and this goes double in tight economic times. An area that they are constantly looking at is labour, as it’s often the organization’s highest fixed cost. To reduce these costs, they try to move operations to low cost locales, low cost cities in low costs provinces and states for operations they need to keep in their home country, and they move as much labour as they can to low cost countries when they don’t have to stay at home, possibly through outsourcing.
In their minds, they are leveraging cost differentials, global opportunities, currency exchanges, and making smart investment decisions. (And, in their minds, they are doing a good deed by giving people work who might not otherwise get it, often by taking jobs away from people at home that should be doing them.) And herein lies the problem, they think they are saving money by leveraging low cost labour instead of leveraging labour for greater value. And, guess what, the labour that gives your organization more “value” is not the lowest price labour you can find, even for jobs that are traditionally seen as relatively unskilled, or low-skilled.
Let’s take the common example of a call center. Thanks to modern technology, and low cost VOIP, you can put it anywhere there are speakers in your language, often eliminating expensive landlines at the same time. When you move jobs from a $15 hour minimum wage location to an offshore location that costs you $3 an hour in comparison, that saves you 80% right? Maybe. Let us say the local resources you replaced were better educated, better trained, more familiar with your products, and resolve 80% of issues on a single call of 12 minutes or less, for an average issue resolution cost of $3. Let us say the new resources are not as well educated (average high school diploma, not college or university educated like your local resources), minimally trained (they are told how to politely answer a call, but no de-escalation training), and no familiarity with your products besides overview documents and issue resolution scripts. As a result, it will be likely that it takes them an average of three (3) calls of thirty (30) minutes each to fully resolve an issue. This means that the average cost for this “low-cost labour” to resolve an issue is $4.50. That’s 50% more than using a well-trained local resource to resolve the issue. That is not savings. Plus, some of those customers are not going to be happy that a 10 minute problem took 90 minutes of their time plus hold time plus time in between connecting to the rep. And a small percentage of those customers will switch to your competitor when it comes time for them to replace the product. That’s definitely NOT savings!
Let’s take garment production as our next example. This is a typical outsourcing industry that tries to find the lowest cost locales possible. When you go to the lowest cost locale, you end up paying significantly higher freight costs, possibly being stuck with inferior quality garments when the plant switches to lower quality fabrics, possibly ending up with garments with lower shelf life due to inferior stitching when they are manually made by lesser-skilled resources. In comparison, imagine you had a nearshore location that was low freight, used locally sourced high quality fabrics, and skilled workers who used a mix of automatic stitching machines and hand stitching, as required, for high quality production. If quality goes down, satisfaction goes down, and customers start to complain. Then brand reputation goes down and sales go down. Is that savings? Well, if the local production is $5 a garment and the outsourced production is $2 a garment, maybe. But what if the outsourced garment shop uses labour that is child labour under local laws (if not their local laws), the media gets hold of the story, it blows up, and there is a big brand backlash and sales drop 40%. Is it still savings? I’d argue not.
Let’s move upstream, to software development, which is happening more and more often due to many countries having good education systems and skilled workers who aren’t demanding the inflated IT salaries in the USA. Now, there are a lot of countries with highly educated talent who can code (like Poland, India, etc.) that are not the USA, Canada, the EU, the UK, and other countries where high tech has been traditionally clustered, and many of these, after currency conversions, have talent for 1/3 the cost or less. If they have about the same coding rate (in terms of lines of code per hour) as these first world countries, you can argue that it’s a saving. But it’s not just code lines per hour, it’s error free code lines per hour and, most importantly, it’s finishing the project on time, on budget, and to spec. Most IT projects fail and go well beyond budget and timelines and this is triply true in IT Software Development Outsourcing. (the doctor does not want to recount just how many projects he’s seen fail over the years, especially after advising companies not to outsource certain projects, which they did anyway.) Why? Because software development requires more than the ability to code, it requires understanding what the software has to do, who it has to do it for, how it has to do it, and why. If you don’t understand the domain you are developing for, the business who will be implementing the system, the culture of the user, and how they need to work — the system will be a failure even if it’s delivered mostly bug free. So while this is usually expected to be the largest area of cost savings, it’s usually the largest loss a company, especially one new to the game, ends up taking. (Outsourcing can succeed with the right, hybrid, model, but most companies have no clue what this is. Only a few figure it out.)
In other words, if you are trying to leverage low cost labour for cost savings, you’re usually looking in the wrong place. Especially if you are interested in maximizing return on investment, in whatever form that takes (lower total cost of ownership, higher sales, better brand image — which positively correlates with more profit). If you want to leverage labour or value, it’s the right labour, not the lowest cost labour. The labour that is the most productive, produces the highest quality product, gets it right the first time, and keeps your customers coming back. That’s true low-cost labour, because properly leveraged labour increases company profit, making labour costs low in comparison. Think about that the next time you try to replace talent with untrained troops.