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The Junior High Piano And The Call Center

April 15, 2016

After 12+ years of using a rental piano in our auditorium, we’ve made the decision to end our contract due to quality and maintenance issues and work toward purchasing our own instrument. If families, friends, relatives, or businesses are in a position to contribute funds, we are grateful for any support.

Five copies of the same email from Trevor Manning arrived in my mailbox. One for each of my kids in choir and a second for my daughter who has two choir classes. It was an appeal for money to buy a new piano. As I read through it, I realized that my kids’ music program was going through a decision making process that, as a project manager I go through on a regular basis. They were faced with the classic “build or buy” decision. 

Of course, they weren’t planning to build their own piano, but the economics were the same. 

My company is essentially a call center provider. Our “product” is agents sitting in call centers around the world that we can train and make available to companies that need to provide “operators” for their members. Most of the time when you call a large corporation, be it your bank, or your phone company, or even many computer companies, you are not talking to an employee of the company. You are talking to a highly trained agent that works for a dedicated call center company. The company you are calling has hired a company like mine to staff and handle calls. 

The relationship is typically a tightly integrated partnership between the call center company and the client. The goal is for the person calling in to never know the difference between talking to an employee of the call center and an employee of the company itself. 

This arrangement works out great for all parties involved. A software company, for example, is typically an expert in writing software. It’s what they do, it’s why they are in business. And, having worked for Microsoft and WordPerfect, I can tell you that to get to be a company of their size, you have to be very good at what you do and very focused on writing great software. 

There are not a lot of similarities between writing great software and being able to explain to other people how to use your software. Even more complex and hard to do is taking calls from people who have a problem using your software. If you want to offer your software worldwide, now you have to consider how are you going to let people in Europe and Africa call for support? How many phone lines do you need? What about call routing and call queuing software?  There are a million little details that go into making the customer’s phone experience the best it possibly can be. 

And most people who are good at writing software, are not great at communicating with people. The skill set that lets you conceive of how to turn a bunch of obscure software commands into a word processor is not the same skill set that lets you patiently explain to an elderly woman in Florida that “moving the mouse to the upper right hand corner” doesn’t mean you pick up the mouse and put it on the computer screen.

So, specialization happens. My first job at Microsoft was to be on the phones answering questions about Microsoft Mail. I was a Microsoft employee. But, even then, it was more convenient for Microsoft to hire contractors to work in support. Eventually, as the software matured with the release of Microsoft Exchange, the company started moving away from having their own employees and their own call centers and contracting it out. 

A company like mine, can provide the infrastructure to scale up to take millions of calls. We buy thousands of phone lines. We have specialized software to route calls to the next available agent. We can place call centers in countries all around the world to provide local support for international companies. And, we can do it much cheaper than a software company, or a bank or a phone company could do it themselves. 

In the “build or buy” equation, we come in as a “buy” solution. Companies will buy our services rather than build their own. 

Back to my kids and their choir program. The choice the music department had was to rent a piano for a few hundred dollars per year, or buy their own piano for $20,000. At first glance this seems like an easy choice, right? Renting has huge advantages. Someone else comes in and installs the piano. They tune it, they maintain it and at the end of the year they take it away and bring you a new one the following year. So, you get a new piano every year. 

And in the world of music, that’s the problem, not the solution. Pianos last 50-100 years. And when you get a new piano, it isn’t like getting a new car. With a new car you expect it will work perfectly as you drive it off the lot. But, a piano needs to adjust to the location you put it in. Temperature and humidity affect an instrument that is made of wood and metal and long strings under tension. As the piano adjusted to its environment, it changes shape very slightly. But, even a slight change changes the tension in the strings and you have to tune it again. . .and again. . .and again. Eventually, the piano gets to the point where it’s fully acclimatized and it will stay in tune with a minimal amount of maintenance. So, renting a new piano every year means that you constantly have to tune your piano. And it takes over a year to acclimatize a piano to a new location. 

Now, you see the problem. Just about the time the piano is getting used to the school auditorium, they take it away and bring in a brand new one. Old pianos are preferable to new pianos. So, my kids’ junior high school is planning a fundraiser to buy a new $20,000 piano. Ironically, in the the classic “Build/Buy” equation, the school will stop “buying” the piano rental and they will “build” a solution that allows them to own their own piano. The fact that their build solution will result in them buying a piano suggests that I may have wanted to better think out this comparison before I started writing this.

If you want to donate to my kids’ music program, the details are below. It’s tax deductible.  

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

How to contribute: Funds may be contributed through the Alpine School District Foundation, accessed through the Alpine School District home page.

Scroll to the bottom of the page, and click the “donate” button on the lower right side.

The next page provides the option of either mailing in a check or donating by card. If you choose the check option, click on the “donation form” link below and follow the instructions to mail in your check. If you choose card, click on the “donate” button again, select contribution amount, fill out the card information and submit.

The next page allows you to review your contribution details. Please be sure to click on “purpose of donation” (it’s located to the left of the total amount) and indicate that you want the funds to be contributed to the Pleasant Grove Junior High Choir Program or they will likely end up not being provided to us.

You will be given a receipt for your tax-deductible contribution. Note: the online system also provides the option to pay through PayPal if you prefer.

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  1. Call it ‘rent or own’ Rodney, and you have exactly what you are trying to say. I ran across this when someone was explaining ‘cloud’ services, a term I despise. But, the 4th name change for renting compute stuck, and we have cloud services. That name enabled me to understand the initial problem with cloud, BTW – in likening IT to transportation where cloud is a taxi service, it showed it’s strengths and weaknesses. Early cloud services were indeed like a taxi – very expensive per mile with relatively few buyers. More current options are like public transportation – standardized, big scale with relatively few options they leverage economies of scale to make compute more affordable.

    So cloud is like renting a trumpet, which makes sense. In house compute is buying that piano.

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