Always at the wrong time, the calls interrupt my life: meetings, deadlines, dinner with family.
Yet, when I hear the phrase, “Is this a good time, ma’am?”, I can’t say no.
Do you have any need for money?
Would you be interested in a new credit card?
You have qualified for a discount for frequent diners in our restaurant.
It seems the ultimate irony when Indians complain about the persistence of the burgeoning domestic business process outsourcing (BPO) segment. Surely they realize that BPO is responsible for waking up some sheltered Westerners from clichéd visions of snake charmers and the Taj Mahal defining this country. Or that the industry over the last decade has helped many a bumbling lad gain the skills and confidence to move on to greater things.
Attacking call centres has become en vogue, from the hours and monotony to partying workers to security for women—even though such issues plague many sectors. The government’s “do-not-call” registry has only crowded the anti-BPO bandwagon.
Love or hate the genre it spawned, pioneer of what I term “chap lit” Chetan Bhagat’s One Night@The Call Center dissects another complaint: the constant kowtow to “dumb Americans” who can’t figure out their computers or washing machines.
Now in a nod to the maturity of Indians as a market, they are calling us.
Applying Bhagat’s idea in these more inward-looking times, I spent one day at a call centre to put some faces to the voices.
Granted, on first impression, Trinet Solutions Pvt. Ltd in New Delhi might not be as chic or glamorous as the BPOs that are allegedly flattening the world or the subject of documentary; office space is tight and entry-level salaries of between Rs6,500 and Rs8,000 are lower than international counterparts. But the workers here spoke with enthusiasm about growth they are feeling and fuelling within themselves and a new sector.
“When I joined here, I was a very shy person,” says Vijeta Madaan. “I was a caller, then a team leader. I faced many challenges. Facing challenges makes me confident.”
She supports her mother and younger sister on her salary as an assistant manager—at the age of 24.
Shashank Jain, 21, is on his second domestic BPO gig. His elder brother works in overseas BPO so Jain could make a switch if he wanted.
“I have achieved a lot in this company and don’t feel the need to go,” says the quality department team leader. “My brother says I have grown more in two years than he has, and the most important feature in a job is growth.”
Sometimes, agent Rachna Singh, 24, admits, “There are customers who hurt us.”
Could that be, I ask their boss, because a lot of the customer service tends to be, well, terrible?
“There is still a long way to go,” says Pavan Bhasin, the general manager. “Our emphasis is on quality and the scope for improvement. If you compare customer service now to what we had earlier, India is doing great.”
But that is not his bar for measurement, he says, and so Trinet—with customers as large as Vodafone—has been focusing on getting workers to take more pride in their jobs. They are called “customer service executives” and constantly told they can do anything they want to do, be anything they want to be.
The marked difference between them and the international BPO workers I have met are the former’s weaker English and less exposure to concepts as the weather in Iowa and the Boston Red Sox. The 500-employee company also has centres in Meerut and Karnal, and Bhasin predicts huge growth in such places in both consumption and employment.
“Insurance, for example,” says Bhasin. “It’s tough to imagine targeting Rs1,000-a-year premiums. It opens your eyes up.”
In management, too, there appears to be a migration from international to domestic call centre work. Srinagar native Seema Erum calls herself a “typical small-town girl” lured by international BPO. “But I was working against nature,” she says. “So, I decided it’s high time to leave.” She now handles Trinet’s human resources.
Some BPOs are eyeing the estimated Rs4,700 crore domestic market to protect themselves against a rising rupee. According to one survey, the international BPO segment employed 553,000 last year. Domestic employment—at 378,000—is not far behind.
Sure, they can be annoying, but so are bad roads and bribery, junk food and cigarette smoke. Domestic BPO models mean opportunity to the underemployed and customer service to those who crave it. It helps us move beyond being just the world’s back office—and makes sure we serve ourselves.
The best agents begin the call with the question: “Is this a good time?”
For the country, the answer is yes.
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