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India’s call-center workers get pounded

India’s call-center workers get pounded
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First Published: Sat, Mar 03 2007. 12 54 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Mar 03 2007. 12 54 AM IST
W hen there is hell to pay, Mitul Pandey is part of the team that pays it. On the graveyard shift here at Wipro, one of India's larger customer-service outsourcing firms,Ms. Pandey, 22 years old, is a specialist on the escalation team. The group deals with the angriest customers of a U.S. computer maker when their problems remain unresolved after many phone calls.
Night-shift employees, like those at this Wipro customer-service center, are in high demand.
On her computer screen, she reviews the log of an exchange with a frequent caller from Mt. Pleasant, Pa., whose memory-card reader is still broken: “I wish to not have anyone from India or any foreign country or anyone with an Indian accent or foreign accent continue handling my case,” he told her. Calling him back is tougher than, say, coping with the woman who, instructed by her computer to “press any key to continue,” was upset that her keyboard didn't have an “any” key. Because Ms. Pandey doesn't have an American accent, he rebuffs her help. When she and her manager later call him back, they only reach his answering machine and leave a message offering to conference in an American specialist.
Even though Ms. Pandey sees few daylight hours, and many people beyond the end of their rope, she can still say cheerfully: “I feel like coming to the office every day.”
Inside India's booming outsourcing industry, which is helping the economy grow 9% this year, the cubicle farms are not distinguishable from their U.S. counterparts. Phalanxes of four-foot-wide cubicles at the call centers are adorned with wedding announcements, Peter Drucker quotes and someone's New Year resolutions. People gossip about getting the newest model cellphone, gauge the time remaining on their shift and prattle on about Brangelina.
The biggest difference: It's an employee's market. Here, outsourcing employees have leverage not seen in the U.S. since the dot-com boom. Only in India, the boom isn't built on prayers but on the alluring facts of labor arbitrage—employees get paid a fraction of their U.S. counterparts, yet it's still a decent wage. Staffers also get heavily subsidized food, tuition assistance, free transportation and often plenty of competing job offers.
They also work in hierarchies arguably flatter than in the U.S. To email a company chairman or to go over the head of your manager isn't perilous here; it's welcomed. Managers can get in trouble just for using a bad tone of voice, they say. Indian companies also have suggestion boxes, which aren't stuffed with coffee stirrers—and someone knows where to find the key.
“We don't believe in formality,” says Aniruddha Ganguly, associate chief operating officer at Wipro BPO. “We don't believe in hierarchy and we don't believe in protocol.”
Outsourcing executives here say more than half of their job is making employees happy. That would sound hollow if the attrition rate in the outsourcing industry hadn't once peaked at a brutal 50%. “It's a constant worry,” says Suranjan Banerjee, Ms. Pandey's manager. Today, four of his employees told him they had offers from rivals. “It's a really bad day for me,” he says. (He ended up saving three of the four, not with money but by reminding them of opportunities there.)
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to leave: boredom, long working hours, the physical toll and isolation from their social circles that live on local India time zones. A three-year tenure working phones confers veteran status. Though most who work in the industry love the stability of income and the opportunity for advancement, some will leave because of burnout, to pursue other jobs or to continue their education.
The rise of outsourcing in India has meant the emergence of a powerful consumer class of twentysomethings who often live a fast-and-loose life of partying. Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi and an outsourcing hub, has erupted with marble and glass towers as improbable as Las Vegas—and as busy throughout the night. Roughly a dozen malls have sprouted to capture spending money. Fleets of white jeeps wait outside buildings to shuttle employees home and back, their radios blaring: “New Delhi's hottest hit music is on Fever 104.”
In an atmosphere like this, employees can afford to be picky. “There are people who will leave a company because they don't like the food,” says Manu Tandon, a senior marketing manager at outsourcing firm Equinox.
Many view outsourcing work as a well-paying summer job. But in a global economy, many outsourcing employees also see the exposure to overseas business as an important elective in their education. It's a notion Indian executives like to enforce, creating classrooms and training sessions as academic as any on an American campus. So when new hires—called “freshers”—join Wipro, they sit in an accent training class, reviewing vowel sounds to standardize their regional accents.
In an American-culture training class at Wipro, students identify Indian stereotypes (superstitious, religious, helpful) and American stereotypes (not so knowledgeable about computers, sports-loving, punctual). The point is to identify shallow images as barriers to good communications so they can be overcome.
To smooth over communications gaps, many adopt western names. Tushar is Travis. Sameer is Smith. Utkarsh Vardhan, Ms. Pandey's cube neighbor at Wipro, says employees are supposed to use their real names. “But I tried it,” explains Mr. Vardhan, and customers called him “Whatever your name is.”
Says Mr. Vardhan: “My accent trainer suggested ‘Philip.’”
While most calls sent overseas to India are innocuous information exchanges, there's only so much that can prepare someone for the hair-pulling frustration that confronts Wipro's escalation desk, where frustrated callers end up when demanding to talk to a supervisor. Only employees with a proven track record of patience get promoted to the desk.
To prepare for that assignment, they role-play angry callers. Much is scripted, like leaving a follow-up voicemail to see if a technician's visit resolved a problem. But agents aren't trained to respond to rage with anything specific. Listen and solve the problem, they say, and the customer will mellow. Amid entreaties to reboot, one can hear the language of sympathy: “I know how you feel.”
But only experience can prepare employees for consumer rage, managers say. Before Wipro's Mr. Banerjee managed the escalation team, he was an agent. One of his first calls involved an American who ran over his briefcase with his car. His pen survived but his laptop didn't. The man said he'd write a letter of commendation to the pen manufacturer but would write to newspapers to complain about the computer maker, where he had friends in high places, Mr. Banerjee recalls. “Nothing trains you for that,” he says. No matter how unreasonable, he adds, “You have to be empathetic.”
Another reason outsourcing executives pat employees on the back is because customers usually don't. Given the fragility of computers and their inevitable technical failures, one can understand why. Just 30 notes of appreciation came out of 2,400 calls in a two-month period. Tushar Bhatt, a 26-year-old agent, says with a smile that he has never received a call from any customer out of the blue saying, “My computer is working very well.”
Nor does anyone expect to. Most have genuine empathy for their callers. “If the same thing happened to me,” says escalation team leader Lalit Chaudhary, “I'd be extremely angry.”
Mahi Sudan, who handles mortgage accounts at outsourcing firm EXL Service, knows that by the end of the month she'll be drained because of payment deadlines. But she also can never predict when a heart-wrenching story will arise. Yesterday, she got a call from an unemployed elderly woman who has cancer and couldn't pay. “She was literally crying,” Ms. Sudan recalls. She gave the woman a toll-free number of charities that might be able to assist her. “You have to take care of your parents,” she says by way of explanation.
Parents of call-center workers don’t like the overnight, nightclub-crazy culture. But some say their parents don't complain as much as they did at first and they appreciate the steady work and income, not to mention gifts from their children.
“We don't have enough other options,” says Sharad Bharti, an agent at Equinox. “Until we get married, this is the time to enjoy.” (Chin up; marriage isn't so bad.)
At 35 years old, Deepa Trivedi, who does more high-level outsourcing work at Tata Consultancy Services, has thought about buying a home for the first time, despite inhospitable property values. Her favorite benefit: After she joined Tata, Ms. Trivedi found out that employees had an annual medical budget of more than $11,000. That includes her parents. So her mother had knee-replacement surgery, delayed for years due to the expense, without upfront cash or bureaucratic torment.
At Wipro, it's 5:52 a.m. and Ms. Pandey's cube-neighbor, Mr. Vardhan, a.k.a. Philip, listens to an elderly lady from Chesapeake, Va., explain for the umpteenth time how a technician failed to fix her computer problem.
Even though the machine is beyond its warranty, he offers her a new part. But company rules prevent him from dispatching a technician to install it after the warranty has expired. The caller wants escalation again, so he opens an instant-message window to enlist the help of an American technician whom he conferences onto the call. Although the Indian employees can dispatch technicians, parts, and even new PCs, they have American counterparts to whom they turn to in the prickliest of cases.
While Phillip's working the case, a crowd of colleagues drape over Ms. Pandey's cubicle for a small ceremony to congratulate her for a job well done. Company auditors had monitored one of her calls and liked what they heard. “She took ownership on the call and assured the customer she would follow up with him till the issue was resolved,” reads a certificate, given to her with a bar of chocolate.
Mr. Vardhan is still on the conference call with the lady from Virginia and the U.S. customer-service agent. They have conceded to free installation of her free parts and free shipping. Says Mr. Vardhan: “She seems to be calming down now.”
Tell Jared Sandberg what you think at wsj@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Mar 03 2007. 12 54 AM IST
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