Saturday, August 18, 2007

Are Oregonians really friendlier?

I’m still pondering the full meaning of Netflix’s rationale for establishing a customer call-in service center in Oregon, rather than, say, Bangalore or Baltimore.

Netflix’s reason: Oregonians are friendlier.

Yes, you read that right — FRIENDLIER.

Here’s a little more background.

The decision, which landed the call center in Hillsboro, was mentioned Thursday in a New York Times business page story.

Netflix could have located the center in less costly places. Strangely, India pops to mind. Turns out Netflix wanted an an exotic "on-shore" site but rejected Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, all popular call center candidates.

You can read the article, of course, but here are a couple excerpts that set me thinking about what it means to be an Oregonian — and whether Netflix got us right.

The executive responsible for the decision, one Michael Osier (a corporate vice president for consumer service), told the Times that he “settled on the greater Portland area because of the genial attitude on the part of most service workers.”

The Times quotes Osier as saying, “In hotels and coffee shops and the airport, it’s amazing how consistent people are in their politeness and empathy,”

Elsewhere, the story reports that Netflix sited the center in Oregon because “it thought that Oregonians would present a friendlier voice to its customers.”

Okay, let's break this down.

1, Are we friendlier?

2. And if so, how?

3. And why?

Let’s take them in order:

I am happy to report that when I travel, I find a lot of consistently friendly people. Of course I’ve never exactly “traveled” to Oregon, (remember, I LIVE here). So maybe I’m missing something. Sure, visitors often tell me Oregonians are friendly, but I have thought they were just being polite. I’ve even found myself thinking, “What did you expect? Sarcasm?”

But to move along to 2., let’s assume that Osier is right: We’re friendlier.

How are we friendlier? The only evidence he produces are examples from the marketplace of consumer-customer chat. Are we friendlier over the long — post-chat — haul?

Face it, extended, intimate relationships aren’t sought at call centers (although, alas, I've had a few), so Osier can’t help us there.

He did use the words “politeness” and “empathy” however.

The two words may move us briskly to question 3: Why are we friendlier?

Politeness first. We may be polite to strangers because we are curious to find out what the world is like beyond the emerald confines of the upper left-hand corner of the lower 48.

You have to be polite to find out. Pushy doesn't cut it.

I’d say we are more “engaging” than polite. As in, we REALLY want to know what it's like out there beyond Baker City and Ontario.

Which gets us to "empathy." Osier may have misread our engaging, passionate (desperate?) curiosity as “empathy.” (“Empathy” means “Intellectual or emotional identification with another.”)

Then again, maybe Osier was right (Remember: Netflix pays him to be right) and that we do display empathy worthy of a call center.

Why? Maybe it’s because when we visit other places we seem, well, a bit weird. Or are made to feel a bit weird.

I’m thinking of the beginning of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” set in New York City. At some point a character (Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill?) announces being from Portland, Oregon. It’s a near conversation stopper. People don’t know what to make of it.

My reaction is to empathize with the fictitious Portlander. I’ve been there.

I’m also thinking of that reaction I sometimes get from old East Coast friends when I tell them, yes, I’m still in Portland and they give me that mildly stunned, “why-would-you-do-that?” look and then hastily compliment me, personally, on the Columbia River Gorge.

So, I don’t know about you, but I'm full of empathy for visitors. When I run into out-of-state out-of-towners, my attitude is, hey, things must be perfect in Peoria, huh? Or “up to date in Kansas City?” (This one comes with an nerdy elbow jab.)

* * *

I don’t want you to come away from this allowing me or Osier or Netflix to have the final word on our friendly factor.

Feel free to share those polite, empathic thoughts, friends.

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