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Monday, March 11, 2002
Lead Article

The Yankee-by-night operators       ILLUSTRATION BY SANDEEP JOSHI

Peeyush Agnihotri
UST a handful of jobs in India demand a complete transformation of personality. Call centres fall in this category. The whole day out (they usually work at night), a call centre agent is free to haggle in Hindi, abuse in Punjabi and exchange sweet nothings with his girlfriend in Hinglish. Press Enter at the call centre door and Vishal becomes Viv, Darshan is Daisy and Poonam gets to be known as Patty. As soon as they wear their headphones, they metamorphose from 'Arre Yaar' speaking guys to 'Hi! Buddy' pouting pals. It's an essential part of their job. Call centre business is all about satisfying customers overseas.

They could be on diametrically opposite sides of the globe, geographically speaking. And the agent does not have to let them know that he is situated a couple of longitudes away. It's all about making the clients feel that the complaint centre or telemarketing agency is being manned by folks who walk, talk and speak like them.

Call centres could very well have been situated in countries like the USA, Canada, Britain or other places where clients actually are. But calls are outsourced from countries like India as it makes a lot of business sense since English-speaking manpower comes dirt-cheap here. The cost of infrastructure too is just a fraction of what it might be if call centres are situated in some developed countries. Needless to say, that is why there is chase-the sun trend at Indian call centres. The agents remain awake the whole night attending calls from the USA where it's daytime then.


Cool job

Certainly these 35,000 odd 20-plus agents, who have been given a break in this estimated Rs 1,600-crore-revenue-generating call centre business in India, are not complaining. They are seemingly enjoying every moment of it.

Take the case of Sukhpal Karbanda a.k.a Cal. He's on a 7.30 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. shift. A Toyota Qualis comes to pick him up from his home at about 6.30 p.m. in the evening. He gets down to work at 7.30 p.m., has a top-of-the-line dinner provided by his office at 9.30, works till the end of the shift, interspersed lavishly by coffee and routine breaks, and finally hops on to the office conveyance waiting for him. He goes home, gets to sleep by 3 a.m., attends college in the morning (he's doing graduation from SGGS College, Chandigarh), goes out on dates his girlfriend, sleeps, tunes in to MTV and Channel V for latest trends before finally dressing up for the next evening. By the end of the month that is about 20 days or 140 hours long (5-day week) he pockets nearly Rs 10,000. Enough to keep him and his 'dear' ones happy. What's more he's risen up the hierarchical ladder, pipping an MBAiite en route and plans to do his post-graduation in near future.

Accomplishments in sales-figure conversions do matter. And for that the agent's tongue has to drip with proper Americanised English. Have you heard of an agent who went about speaking in Punjabi-coated English with an "Alright, I'm game" client? After this particular agent had spoken in homespun English for a few minutes, the visibly irritated client, who was game till a few minutes ago, croaked: "But could you tell me all this in English. I'm not able to follow you." The colleague agents giggled. The company lost the order. The agent his job.

Qualifications & skills

"Formal education is not at all important in this field. Performance is," Atul Gupta from e3R explains: "On an average an agent makes 300 telemarketing calls a shift. It's useless if none of these materialises into actual sales. On the other hand if an agent makes just a few calls yet bags meaty orders, she has better chances of going up the ladder. We have a case of a result-oriented girl agent getting promoted just 17 days after joining the office." The gist is - be intense and performance oriented.

This does not imply that those with high qualifications desist from entering the industry. Harpreet Kaur (Kim if she's wearing a headphone) is BE (Electronics). She has opted for this career and has no regrets. "The job is interesting. You get to learn more as American culture is totally different from ours. And the working hours are not all that tiresome. Even otherwise it's a routine to stay up awake till midnight in most Punjabi families," she says and plans to stay put in this IT-enabled sector.

True. India and America are poles apart, culturally and even linguistically to a certain extent. So when the client says, "Don't diss me man, gimme the shebang," the agent has to understand that the client wants that he or she should be more forthright. Similarly, "Yo man, don't be givin' me no jive! Ya dig??" means that the client doubts the product's reliability and is rejecting the call.

Interestingly, the world over, girls are being preferred in this industry. They far outnumber men primarily because customers like to hear female voices that soothe them. Some even complement, "Yo, baby yer soundin' real sweet. Was ya name?" an indication that it's time for agent to hang up as the client is in a different 'mood' altogether. A few call centres have men, who can actually speak in feminine voice, on their rolls as this is an asset, supposedly.


Agents are taught to speak what Uncle Sam understands and drop Punjabiat and Indianisation like 'I was saying ki'. "Such interjections are not unusual as English does not come to most of us naturally. Most of us tend to fall short of words while speaking English. Remember, the job requires wit, thinking on your feet and a perfect command over diction and vocabulary," Atia Noor, regional manager, Hero Mindmine, a call centre agent training company, says. "The voice modulation and the rate of speech have to be in a perfect synchronisation. Besides this, the student has to be trained in English as applicable in corporate culture and customer service. For that software like Dyned come in handy," she asserts with authority born out of experience.

Flop side

Call centre agents' voices remain under great pressure because of the nature of their work. Conditions affecting the voice (dysphonia) can be short or long term, some permanent. Agents have to listen to complaints and given the belligerent nature of the 'at-the-receiving-end' customers, an agent can come under undue stress for no fault of hers. Then those who sit regularly in front of computer screens report problems like soreness of the eyes, blurred vision and headaches from working long hours, referred to as computer vision syndrome. Since quite a few call centres keep bright lights on to keep agents active, agents can develop light sensitivity. Where agents have to sit in one position all day at work, sometimes for many hours, they may develop pain in the neck or back. To cater to calls, agents wear headsets. These may get lodged outside the ear resting on the outer ear or plugged into the actual ear hole itself. These could pose comfort and hygiene problems. "Besides all these, an agent has to constantly speak and listen, so a monotony tends to set in. A typical American citizen receives more than 10 calls a day and 80 per cent of them say no to telemarketers, rather forcefully," Inderjit Kaur, trainer, customer service, says and recalls how an agent was once made a fool of for 30 minutes while the clients gave all sorts of wrong personal details. All this merely to teach agent a lesson for constantly pestering him with phone calls. "Add to it the targets that are to be achieved in telemarketing and the constant night shifts and the body starts taking the beating, covertly. Full real sleep is elusive in the morning - this may result in perpetual headache and lower fitness level. It's the duty of the manager to relieve the stressed employee with frequent breaks," she adds.

Attrition rates

Attrition rates in the voice-enabled telesales and telemarketing activities that are currently around 25 per cent are expected to rise in the next 18 to 24 months to 35 to 40 per cent. According to National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), the attrition rates in telesales and telemarketing companies are 22 to 25 per cent. Poaching too is rampant.

Bright spot

Both agents and managers brush such things aside till greenbacks flow through Graham Bell's invention. Which job doesn't have professional hazards, they ask? Liberal monetary incentives take care of all this. "Sometimes, we hang a Rs 1,000 note through the ceiling and the executive who makes the most number of fruitful calls takes it," Gupta says.

It's this twist-in-the-tale that makes these young Jims and Claires enjoy every part of their jobs, unmindful about the stress. Some have even found life partners in the process. Venus (Veena) and Mike (Manoj) joined the job 10 months ago as complete strangers. Today, they are engaged and vow to spend their lives together at the same call centre where Cupid struck them. Their only request to their boss is to keep them in one shift. And going by high attrition rates and the incentive mania that has taken over the industry, their boss will relent. He'll have to.