Disintermediation Bites


Bad news for my hometown, as American Express announces the closing of its Greensboro, NC call center and the vaporization of hundreds of local jobs.

Blame the internet. From an email to civic bigwigs from Amex general manager Robert Garinger:

The decision to close our Greensboro facility comes at a time when we have seen a significant reduction in call volumes--particularly as many customers choose online and mobile channels for routine matters such as checking balances and paying bills...carrying fixed costs of real estate facilities that do not operate at full capacity severely limits our ability to continue to invest in and to grow our business.

Another memo (PDF), from Jim Bush, EVP of Amex's World Service group, says, "The shift to online and mobile channels has been fastest among customers in the U.S. where we now handle far more transactions digitally than we do by phone."

When I say "blame the internet," I'm speaking as a native of a region that has seen its traditional industries rocked by globalization and consolidation, and that suffers higher-than-average unemployment. We really, really do not need this now.

An Amex shareholder, or an IT consultant, would more likely say, "credit the internet." The company invested in technology that makes it cheaper to serve its customers, and the ROI includes savings on real estate and staffing. That's what technology is supposed to do for businesses, and, as a local blogger points out, telecom-related jobs have been in flux for more than a generation.

Amex is not leaving our county -- the company is building a couple of data centers nearby. But those refrigerated warehouses will employ only a fraction of the headcount at the call center, and there, too, technology is lowering the number of jobs available.

In theory, Amex and its investors will now go on to create more jobs, somewhere, and over time we end up with a stronger, more efficient economy. In human terms, in the place that just lost all those jobs, that's cold comfort.