CALL CENTRES: Getting Rogered - by Gauri Bhatia Back   Home  
Fresh out of college, Raghu becomes perfectly-groomed Roger. But monotony, late hours and alien culture finally get to him.
Meet Raghuvendra Prasad, alias Roger. He is 23, speaks with a Yankee accent and is completely chilled out. He works at night, sleeps during the day and is right on the ball when it comes to the latest on Hollywood. His friends think he is too cool but his parents are a bit worried. He is not your usual party-hopping college kid with an attitude. Raghuvendra is a call centre agent who is spending his youth talking on the phone to strangers hundreds of miles away.

The estimated $200 million call centre business in India is just a couple of years old but we already have 50,000 twentysomething girls and boys working for companies like GE Caps, Spectramind, exl, 24/7 and more than 60 others in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Their number is expected to grow to half a million in the next five years.

A huge job opportunity here, for English-speaking graduates. They are picked up and dropped home from office, work eight-hour shifts and make about Rs 8,000 a month to begin with. That is not all, they even get to learn about American and British cultures and to watch soaps like Friends and Eddie Murphy movies.

Such is the out-of-this-world universe of call centres: huge colourful buildings with excellent cafetarias and a million phone lines. But in spite of all this, the yet-in-its-infancy call centre business in India has a strikingly high attrition rate—between 50 and 60 per cent of all call centre agents leave within the first year. Why? At the most fundamental level, the monotony of the job gets to them.

Take the case of call centre agent Raghuvendra who has been assigned business nickname Roger, because it is easier for his American clients to identify with and pronounce. He is on the 8 pm to 4:30 am shift. A Tata Sumo comes to pick him up from a nearest point at about 5.45 pm which means he has to leave home around five in the evening for a shift that begins at eight. He gets back only at 6 in the morning even though the shift ends more than an hour earlier.

And while in office he seldom gets a breather. During the peak hours he is attending calls back to back—he is servicing the toll-free number of a credit card company. And the couple of minutes he gets in between calls, he has to key in the details of the previous call. And Roger does not know either when his supervisor is listening in to his calls.

Roger gets a 30-minute dinner break and two 15-minute breaks. And as he says, "he has to plan his loo going during these breaks". At times, when he reaches home past sunrise, he complains of a swollen tongue because of the continuous talking. But there's a spinoff: the call centre job has at least made the shy and reserved Raghuvendra a compulsive talker.

The business works on one premise: the client is always right and in the case of most of the agents sitting in Noida and Gurgaon outside Delhi, he is either American or British. They are taught to learn and relate to the idioms and idiosyncrasies of the client and to get rid of their own baggage. Says Siddhartha Talwar, chief executive officer, Mindbank, a training bench for call centre agents: "You have to unlearn whatever you have learnt so far. All Indianisms have to simply stop." To begin with, the "yaar" from your vocabulary has to go and you have to learn to answer the phone with "Hi, this is Bob", or "Yo, what's up?" Roger, by sheer force of nature addresses his friends as "Hey Mate" even at home.

Plus there's a whole list of do's and don'ts that a call centre agent is trained in.

First you are advised never to use the word "really"—even in casual conversation—while making a collection call. Why? In America when you use this word, it only implies that the call centre agent is actually doubting the honesty of the client. Another thumb rule: you always have to keep track of the US states in which you are not legally permitted to give out any financial details about a client, even to his wife. These are called 'no spouse states'.

Agents are also taught that America, for example, is a complaining society and when an American makes a call to his credit card or mobile phone company he is mentally prepared only to win, so he is aggressive. "Most incoming calls are blame calls from people who are upset, so the agent has to be taught to handle such calls without himself getting upset, because the clients often blow up," says Talwar.

Appreciating the existence of foul language is also necessary. Americans can swear when they talk and to get used to this agents are made to watch Eminem music videos and Eddie Murphy movies. They are also taught not to "react" to homosexuality.

Here is what a call centre agent did almost at the cost of his job. He made a call to the US to one George Charmer and when a male voice on the other side answered—"My husband is not at home"—the agent freaked. He started mumbling and put the phone down. Now this was a narrow escape. If the "husband" had suspected a bias towards gays, the call centre company would have been in serious trouble.

Americans also use a lot of sports and finance idioms and agents are taught to understand and recognise phrases like "run interference for me", "bottomline", "in the red", "rain check" and "ballpark figure". The average call centre agent who is usually a fresh graduate and not from the best colleges is most often completely out of the loop. For instance, when asked to explain the phrase "a rain check", one of them answered, "it has something to do with the greenhouse effect."

While the call centre industry is facing a physical overcapacity, there is a grave short supply of people. India can boast of a huge pool of English-speaking graduates, but only about 25 per cent of all those who apply for a call centre job actually get selected, because only so many of them are "trainable". But the opportunities for growth for a call centre agent are limited; he can at best hope to become a team leader after two or three years. For senior positions, mbas are hired directly, and any movement up the ladder for the agents is rare.

But the work continues to be tough and as one smart agent who left his job to do an mba says: "There is not too much learning after a point and it does not even count as work experience."

Besides, because of the odd hours and the completely alien work culture, many of the agents end up with behavioural problems. Explains psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Chugh: "Because they are living a role which is not their own, these people have relationship problems plus because of the night shifts they are also prone to alcohol and sleeping pill abuse."

On their part though, call centres try to make the workplace as comfortable as possible. For example, at Spectramind, electricity and telephone bills for agents' homes are arranged to be paid for by the office, while they also organise play and movie tickets for employees, since most of the waking and sleeping hours are spent at work.

The cars which drop the agents home have walkie talkie-sporting drivers and armed guards and if anything happens to an employee at work, he is given what they call worker's compensation.

But some companies are so paranoid that whenever their staff leave the premises even if it is only to have tea at a shop across the road, they are asked to sign a letter saying that they are doing so at their own risk.

Some centres train their agents, believe it not, on how to use the bathroom and about personal hygiene. They are introduced to deodorants and through fashion shows covertly to a certain dress code.

It is total grooming, so much so that parents back home are finding it difficult to recognise their wards. It has been suggested, thus, that call centres have a Parent-Employee meeting every now and then to show the worried parents how well their children are being looked after!
Published in Outlook India. I have a friend who works in a call center. He tells me the horror stories about their experiences with rude, dumb customers. It's not a joke.. it is real tough to work at a call center. We all just know about the waiting for someone to say.. " center.. how can I help you?"