how the world sees america

Inside an Indian Call Center: "Spread the Wealth"

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Chennai - We’ve all talked to “Jennifer,” the girl who calls you up on Saturday afternoons trying to offload a Direct TV subscription, or "Alan" who answers the tech support line when your HP printer busts again. Ever wondered who these people really are and what they think of you?

Twenty minutes from the center of Chennai, down a narrow ally on the second floor of an old yellowing building, the Call Center InfoSearch buzzes and the phones never stop. Sixty English-speaking employees call Australia in the morning, England in the afternoon, and America all night.

I talked to 23-year-old Saravama Jothi, a.k.a. “Alan,” and 27-year-old Vimesh Valaalan, a.k.a. “Jim,” about their experience braving the toughest but most lucrative shift: America overnight.

Straight out of college, the two went into BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) because they could earn more money faster than in any other industry. Their starting monthly salary was 10,000 rupees, a little under US $300. Every three months they stayed on the job, monthly pay grew by 3,000 rupees. There’s a big incentive to start young and hang out as long as you can stand it. The average call center employee is 22. And it doesn't take too long to rise through the ranks. In about seven years one of 60 callers can realistically become one of four managers.

It's a tough life. They stay up ten hours a night calling Americans, who are generally annoyed. They only get a few scattered five-minute breaks to rush to the bathroom, and then return to their desks to discover another 50 calls blinking on their service queue.

“We hate phones,” Vimesh says. They complain of back, neck and stomach pain, partly caused by hunching over a computer, and partly caused by irregular sleeping patterns. In the summer, it's tough to sleep during the intense heat of the daytime. “It’s not simple working in a call center,” says Saravama.

Talking to the Americans, I’m told, is the good part of the job. Sure, there’s some abuse now and then, but thankfully most Americans save these callers time by “hanging up right away if they’re not interested,” rather than lingering on the line. "I'm proud of talking to Americans; I can sell them anything," a 22-year-old call center employee named Rakesh Kumar tells me. He lives with his parents and spends the bulk of his salary on designer clothes, clubs, and music electronics. He would love to see America, but the goods will have to do for now.

It's all about "building rapport" with American callers, they tell me. The key to the sell is not just the product, but the personal connection. So they always ask first how their potential customer is doing and "how the weather is," as they’re taught in a week of "U.S. Culture Training." Vimesh is so successful at this that some elderly people tell him they wait for his calls. He wishes he could call them more often, but their phones are run by a machine that automates whose number gets dialed and when. On top of this, they aren't supposed to be on any one call for more than 5 minutes. They have to make their friends fast.

Speed is of the essence. These callers need to make 30 sales a month, one per day. They dial 700 numbers each day to accomplish this. Machines answer 300 of those calls. 200 people just hang up. 195 say their parents or the homeowners are gone. Of the remaining 5, only one pulls through. Lots of talk. Little love.

Yet these men embrace their proximity to America, the land of opportunity. The same things that drew them to the call center life -- the ability to rise through the ranks fast based on merit (sales) -- also attract them to America. Vimesh and Saravama both see America as a place where “money flows" without getting trapped in the hands of a few corrupt elite -- at least better than in India. Vimesh tells me, “it's a place where rules must be obeyed” and no one is beyond the law. In Chennai, they complain, the rich stay rich because they break the law and horde wealth.

Spread the wealth. That’s their motto. But some Americans resent just that: spreading their jobs overseas. I ask Vimesh and Saravama what they think of objections to outsourcing. Vimesh's response is: these are “American companies” and “American customers” so “why shouldn’t they benefit?” Saravama adds, “We say the customer is god for us because they pay for our product. If they buy a product, normally we’re going to get benefit. The company will benefit. Everyone will benefit.”

Others may debate the political implications of their work. But at the end of the day, as Saravama says, "It's our job."

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Stu:

I suppose its only fair to add that a lot of the anger in the post below stems from dealing with capital one's poor customer service, from guess where?.... Yeah I tried calling about 50 times and did not get 1 agent capable of conversing, so I was forced to write to them about 10x in several different places to get someone capable of fixing my issue.

Stu:

Because of poor customer service and general loss of decent jobs in my area I have come to hate the indian people... (left lowercase on purpose) They steal many jobs, but I suppose they are the patsy in the situation. The real blame goes to the shortsighted businessman who short sells his companies future to make a few extra hundred thousand for himself.... Soon all the customers bail and boycott his company and it tanks, meanwhile he gets off with a multimillion dollar severance package. I see it everyday and it has aggrivated me on so many levels. They do not give the same quality of service and they are not understandable. To the post 'why don't they use their real names' who the hell can pronounce those crazy names? Who wants to? I just call them subpar indian #5003 and go with that. They just nod and say yes sir and go on with their scripted reply.

bob:

I am associated with BPO industry for over 4 years now, based out of India presently. I have handled many roles and have been active member of ops team. I can understand every individuals view points or were you all coming from however we all are failing to see that this industry is relatively new and is gaining grounds for the benefit of the developed economies and its own, to say the least. This is a normal transition, which we are seeing in this industry. Shot falls/ gaps are bound to be there however if we look at all the challenges as one which can be resolved/ ironed out over a period of time then I strongly believe the synergy created would overcame all challenges .

human:

replying to Ambar post. just like to remind you language is one of the great skill. Do not hate any human because of their origin. Learn to appreciate these people they learn an addtional language using their skill. Remember you and me only speak one language that is American English, and majority of Indian master of 4 to 5 language.

AA:

Before calling thiings rubbish, people need to understand where the callers are coming from and what they aspire its too difficult to understand the different circumstances without going out of the country, it will be so much easy for someone to understand if they move out and visit different places/countries. For US to be a global leader we need to gain respoect of other countries without the respect it wont be a global leader.

Vimesh:

Don't throw out your dirty water until you get in fresh.

Vimesh:

Don't throw out your dirty water until you get in fresh.

Saravama:

Hi,
Bakshi Keep up the great articles
we Indians love to have a good relation and friendship with American.

Waste-NJ:

As a career IT tech who has been dealing with OEM's (manufacturers) and their tech lines for over 11 years, I can honestly say that once the large call centers for Dell, HP, and Compaq went over to India, the quality of the support suffered greatly.

There is a language barrier there, but more than that, I usually knew I was speaking to a junior level tech. Mostly, (from my experience, and after speaking to many of my customers who had called before bringing their unit to me) I found that the calls were just too frustrating for most, and many had the feeling that the person on the line did not understand them. Most importantly, they could usually not diagnose or resolve the customer's problem.

I figure not only did these companies decide to outsource to India, but also to look for the absolute cheapest workforce possible in India on top of it. I am certain that skilled techs are plentiful in India, apparently they have better jobs and don't work in the call centers.

Strangely, all 3 companies named had good to excellent support before their moves, especially HP/Compaq. Many OEM's, like Dell, are now or already have moved some call operations back to the US due to blowback from US customers.

Hari:

It Is a Very Good artical

x2:

It doesn't matter how well they speak English. India is still crap.

If it wasn't garbage, Indians wouldn't try so hard to leave.

Leaving India is practically an industry in itself over there.

Another American:

Just get used to it. It is not going to turn back. I travel extensively to India and believe me, the sincerity exhibited by these guys is nothing compared to what we get here.

And I welcome the difference in accents and whether we as Americans speak better English is an entirely different question.

Someone above said that the British should have taught better English in India. They did, it is sad they did not teach us better English.

Another American:

Just get used to it. It is not going to turn back. I travel extensively to India and believe me, the sincerity exhibited by these guys is nothing compared to what we get here.

And I welcome the difference in accents and whether we as Americans speak better English is an entirely different question.

Someone above said that the British should have taught better English in India. They did, it is sad they did not teach us better English.

Roy:

American companies send jobs overseas while whining about Mexicans taking jobs in the US.

Have you ever called Dell tech support? Talk about arrogant and inflexible. These guys in India only know their scripts and can't think any other way. Ask to be transferred to an American supervisor in the States - it's you only hope.

Margaret :

Keep up the great articles! This sort of indepth reporting is not easy to find in the world of quick CNN-like news stories. Gives a great new perspective on outsourcing.

an American:

As for the comments on language and accents:

If you have trouble understanding a company's representative on the phone, please take that concern up with the company -- not the individual. Until Americans start learning multiple foreign languages themselves, we have no right to criticize the individual foreign language skills of others.

an American:

Some of these comments are downright offensive and extremely narrow-minded. Please stop insulting two people who were kind enough to take the time out of their day to talk to a reporter. They are only doing their best to make a living just like the rest of us.

Anonymous:

Some of these comments are downright offensive, narrow-minded, stereotyping and ill-informed. Please stop insulting two people you've never met who were kind enough to talk to a reporter about their jobs and their lives. They are doing the best they can to make a living just like any of us.

Anonymous:

I woner how many of those 900 premium "personal" lines endup in India? That could certainly "spice up" the conversation, no?

Ambar:

"Straight out of college, the two went into BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) because they could earn more money faster than in any other industry."

Heh. More like they knew how to speak English, and had no other employable skills.

Amar:

Hi CY, I'm off to Kerala this coming Wednesday. Many thx! Amar

L R :

Adobe has the worst. They repeat inane scripts and seldom solve an issue. I've been trying to get a refund for 4 months. Outsourcing is ruining our country.

Jason:

"But I get few calls as I have unlisted number. Best money I ever spend."

Doubtful. I was a telemarketer for about a year and we called every number with 10 digits so we hit everyone. Unlisted, Invalid, Disconnected, whatever. We got them all.

David Lewiston:

A previous poster wrote that "Indians are hard to understand." I'm from England, and I find 99.5% of Murrcans incomprehensible. Pity English isn't spoken in the USA. It would make life so much easier.

cy:

Please make sure that you go to Kerala State.It is nothing like the rest of India.

Dave Mercer:

I hate telemarketers of any nationality. I pay for my telephone as a convenience to me, not as a cheap sales tool for others. I make it a habit to NEVER buy anything from telemarketers. In fact if I stay on long enough to get the name of their company I boycott that company, even if in the past I have purchased from them.

But I get few calls as I have unlisted number. Best money I ever spend.

Plus Indians are hard to understand. I hate when I place a call for information and an Indian answers. Seems like more and more credit card companies are using Indian call centers for "customer service". I wish the Brits had taught them better English.

Rex:

Yes there can be an unfair accumulation of wealth in the United States, but there is still a great possibility of upward mobility.

Corruption is endemic in many Third World countries and opportunities for growth and wealth expansion are limited by this. The amount corruption at all levels of Indian government and business in incomprehensible by American standards. Here you go the the DMV and get your drivers license. In India, there is usually some sort of bribe involved to expedite the process.


Amar:

Rod, glad you liked it. Fatima and Kat. They have high expectations for the U.S. Chennai has a pretty rough crime scene to boot.

Anonymous:

"Speed is of the essence. These callers need to make 30 sales a month, one per day. They dial 700 numbers each day to accomplish this."


Don't they know there is a "Do not call list"? Once your phone numbers get on the list, the telemarketers are prohibited by law to call you. This is a good way to avoid unwanted sales calls.

Ivan Groznii:

United Air Lines is the worst. I called four times for reservations and spoke women with four very English names, like Amanda and Jennifer. Oddly enough, all four had Indian sub-continent accents.

Who do they think they're fooling? It would be less insulting if they would use their real names (or real nicknames)?

Kat:

"Vimesh and Saravama both see America as a place where “money flows" without getting trapped in the hands of a few corrupt elite -- at least better than in India. Vimesh tells me, “it's a place where rules must be obeyed” and no one is beyond the law. In Chennai, they complain, the rich stay rich because they break the law and horde wealth."
*snicker* Those poor, misguided souls. Perhaps it's best of they don't get to come here, it would probably break their hearts to see that we are just as they think we're not.

Fatima:

"In Chennai, they complain, the rich stay rich because they break the law and horde wealth." - Yeah and that certainly doesn't happen in America!! LOOOL

Rod :

Nice article. This has shed some light on the telemarketing calls. I thought that they intentionally set out to annoy me. It also kind of puts a face to the caller, too. And by the way I'm not Indian or of Indian dessent.

Rod :

Nice article. This has shed some light on the telemarketing calls. I thought that they intentionally set out to annoy me. It also kind of puts a face to the caller, too. And by the way I'm Indian or of Indian dessent.

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