The ironies of outsourcing and the aspirations of an individual working at a call centre
Sreedeep | 15 Jul, 2015
Colourful half-page advertisements listing job openings in dedicated sections of dailies for the ‘educated’ and ‘experienced’ have been common in post-Liberalisation India. When the eyes cruise through the various logos and offerings of the MNCs in these over-populated pages, one gets reminded of a decade when the front, back and inside pages of newspaper supplements overflowed with job offerings in the lowest ranks of the infotech sector. These Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) vacancies primarily sought to lure fresh college graduates ‘proficient in English’. Back then, one was yet getting familiar with names such as Convergys, Daksh, Global Vantage, EXL and Vertex. It made one wonder why they needed so many people to ‘walk-in’ week after week, and how they made thousands of ‘on the spot offers’ with ‘revised salaries’ following ‘quick and easy interviews’ and ‘fastest selection processes’. What these selected people actually did, once they got in, was another mystery altogether. Some of these MNCs, promising nothing short of a ‘best start’ to one’s career, that too with the ‘best starting salaries for a fresher’, often came to college campuses for recruitment. They conducted interviews and generously granted immediate offer letters.
Constant commodity aspirations and the need to overcome limited funds and living-in-denial inspired a bunch of kids to take up these casual jobs quite seriously for some time. That was the summer of 2003.
‘Say something more about yourself’: the Interview
“You have mentioned in this form that your aim is to ‘do something different’. How would you relate that to your decision to work in a call centre?” I was asked.
I had given more than couple of interviews, to get rejected on both occasions, and by then had realised what exactly they preferred to hear and the kind of profile they wanted to hire. I was tired of waiting for hours sipping cold water and looking at formally dressed men and women being dumped from one room to another—going through a series of elimination rounds before reaching the interview stage, when they would politely convey “…thank you very much, you may leave for now, we’ll get back to you…” to all those who lacked a ‘neutral English accent’.
On the first occasion, I took interest. On the second, I was getting a hang of it. On the third, I felt like a school kid appearing for an oral examination at the mercy of the schoolmaster and was perennially requested at every step to say something (more) about oneself. But, I had no grudges. Neither the posh hotel ambience nor the polite attitude of the employers towards hundreds of candidates walking in everyday was comparable with the climatic interview-scene from The Adversary (the protagonist in this film violently revolts against the lack of basic amenities in the interview-space and also the idea of calling so many people for just a couple of vacancies to be interviewed for a couple of minutes, where merit is not the basis of selection, anyway). Here, the scene was acting out in reverse. Now they needed us—in bulk—more than we needed them. Any English-speaking dude eager to believe in the promises of this new-age-profession, even with less or ordinary qualifications, or with no desire for any further education, was in great demand like never before.
On the fourth occasion, I had my answers ready. The conversation continued for quite long. I did not fall short of sentences to cover up this process of conscious deception. She was busy evaluating my English and was possibly overlooking the content of my answers while making points on a piece of paper as she kept asking questions on hobbies, movies, etcetera. I was asked to listen to men talking in American accents and was instructed to choose between options that summarised the probable conclusion of their conversation. Then I was asked to wait outside.
The interview with the Senior Process Manager from Pune was the last round, I was told. A charming voice from across the table made me feel as if he had been waiting to hear from me since a time we last met long ago. “So, how is life?” he began, “Okay! Great, please say something about your self.” There seemed no end to this essential inquiry about ‘the self’ at any stage. I started with my name and ended with my ambition, which was to make a career for myself at a call centre. He must have found it useless to discuss the work profile with me. Truly, I had no idea of what I was supposed to do on the deck. But I did not miss any chance to convey how keen I was to learn and deliver. This was followed by a discussion on salary, which was short, because, as a fresher, I was in no position to bargain.
While passing the offer letter, the Human Resources lady formally made a point to emphasise the formal dress code in the office. Jaswindar, a man who thought smoking a bidi on the lawns of the corporate cathedral was cool, replied, “I don’t have any formal wear. Does the company pay any advance for buying some?”
‘What if they find out’: the First Day
A cold current ran through the spine of several candidates, especially the first-timers, with every signature they put on the bottom left of each page of the agreement on the terms and conditions that required them to be graduates. Clearly, quite a few of them were not. What if they found out they were not graduates yet? But they did not. I guess the HR honchos never cared to verify the certificates enclosed in the pink file. Nor did they care to figure out what happened to those tax forms, provident fund forms, insurance forms signed and submitted by the 124 employees joining work on 9 June. Lengthy spells of instructions related to form-filling on the first day were forgotten, as most were happily distracted or uninterested. The crowd was busy checking everything out—the vending machine and its options, the fancy phone and its features—while narrating previous call centre experiences, the hassle in missing or getting the first cab-pick-up…
While these strangers were desperate to know or let the others know ‘something more about themselves’, the junior officials instructing us ‘where to tick’, ‘what to remember’, ‘how to write’, ‘when to stop’ were not in a position to exhibit how irritated they were with the tough task of managing so many recruits. Things got even worse with the daylong induction lectures on training, transport, finance, assets, ‘our motifs’ and ‘your expectations’, ‘your contribution’ and ‘our expectations’. Thankfully, there was good lunch, free internet access (quite unthinkable in those days of expensive cyber cafes) and air-conditioned cabs to follow.
‘My camera versus their camera’: Getting Trained
For the next one-and-a-half months, we loitered around in the mornings, nights, evenings, and graveyard shifts of the classrooms and cafés (though not in every corner as movements were under severe surveillance), at times enjoying and other times sleeping through the training sessions, impatiently waiting for the salary to get transferred to the Citibank account to be swiped-out the moment it arrived. Their surveillant eyes were not advanced enough to guess the variety of reasons to take up such a job casually and stay appointed before absconding.
A host of young fellas kept counting the number of days remaining:
– while the trainer with three kids in seven years (now needing one more) with a ‘do it or I’ll make you do it’ attitude reminded us that prostitution is the oldest customer care service, and the role of a customer care executive is one of the most prestigious ones and definitely not deplorable just because one works at night (as do the doctors and cops).
– while listening to trainees whose primary interests varied from stock markets to cooking for the wife to horse breeding to searching for ‘truth in the Himalayas’. In a free speech session of Voice and Accent Training, fitness was synonymous with Baba Ramdev for some folks, and ‘euthanasia’ meant mass-killing. And what about capital punishment? “Would have known if I attended the college debates,” someone proudly said. The trainer asked trainees to “talk about censorship”. A girl with pink hair was quick to ask, “Is that an automated cruise?”
– while cruising through the consonants, diphthongs, vowel sounds, and imported ‘modules’, rapid ‘mock-calls’ and learning to intonate. We bit the ‘B’s, kissed the ‘W’s and by the time we rolled the ‘R’s, reached the soft ‘T’s and faded ‘P’s.
‘Keeping the Balance’: the Absconder and the Attrition List
In between Punjabi beats in a moving cab or Pearl Jam playing on an iPod at full volume to resist the former; before and after ‘hi bro’, ‘hey dude’, ‘yo man’, ‘yap buddy’; from weekend masti to an inspirational night out, we constantly juggled terms of call-centre jargon and silently yapped about:
How to revolt against ‘IST’ (Indian Stretchable Time)
Why the ‘pick-up time’ hadn’t been SMS-ed yet
Why the fucking cab driver did not come fucking five fucking minutes earlier
How often to ‘login’ early and ‘logout’ late
Why the ‘systems were running slow’
What should be the perfect ‘call opening’ and ‘call ending’
How to handle ‘high call flow’
How to ‘sale’ a product to a ‘disinterested customer’
How to ‘appease’ dissatisfied ‘enquiring consumers’
How to ‘empathise’ with an ‘irate customer’
How to keep ‘call control’ while making the customer feel empowered
How to avoid ‘escalating’ the call
How to make full use of the two ‘fifteen minutes breaks’ and one ‘half hour break’
Why not to say, “I am sorry to hear that”, to a recently divorced customer
Whom to give one’s extra food coupons
How to find out if one’s calls are being monitored
How to reduce ‘AHT’ (Average Handling Time)
How to increase ‘C.Sac’ (Customer Satisfaction) scores
Why not to take two ‘consecutive weekend-offs’
What to write in the ‘feedback forms’
Which friend to refer to the firm for ‘referral’ compensation before leaving the job
What else could be done to maximise ‘P4P’ (Pay for Performance)
Soon after swiping the card and clearing the balance, many of us became what was called ‘an absconding case’ and added our names to the ‘attrition list’. Much of the ‘cost-effective’ (not ‘cheap’) labour stopped coming to office without bothering to formally say goodbye and without multiplying the big dollar sums that business clients had invested in training the cost- effective workforce. Some of us had to get back to our colleges, which had re-opened. Others complained about either the team-leader or the work pressure till the time they got a call from some other call-centre across the road offering a slight increment for the same work. Others changed jobs as they habitually did twice or thrice a year to acquire a new ambience and acquaintances, only to get bored yet again. One chap was smart enough to hold two offices simultaneously. The rest either perished without a trace or sat on the same chair hoping to climb the ‘vertical ladder’ by pleasing their bosses and putting in more work hours while honing their ‘communicative tools’ and ‘navigation skills’. They were the ones the industry hoped to retain.
Consistent conflict between the personal mourning and the professional night took a regular toll unknowingly.
‘After-call wrap-up’: Remains of the Flirtatious Feedback
I-cards hung like nameplates around necks all the time, along with codes generated in a distant land. Punching these plastic cards ensured automated entry, strictly confined to those floors where we had some business. Forgetting a card required prolonged human intervention to convince the security that one deserved to get in. Hiding beneath some note pads, the termination clause 6.b.i. of one of the appointment letters stated: ‘During the probation period you are liable to be discharged from the company’s service at any time without any notice and without assigning any reason.’ But it’s a fair guess that employees left the company more often without any notice or assigning any reason. The company, most often, had no answer for this loss of labour to offer its owners and clients across the oceans. The infotech systems on board were not advanced enough to predict or prevent people from making the industry look like a makeshift arrangement; a probation that would rarely lead to permanence.
‘Is there anything else that I can do to help’
Between the cafeteria cleaned once every hour and the murky roadside dhaba adjacent; between the latest cars in the parking lot and the rickshaws waiting for those who couldn’t yet afford to pay car instalments; between the fiberglass windows and the jhopris (visible once the curtains were lifted), new heights were achieved and new targets set every night that were globally connected and locally disconnected.
At a site that is otherwise devoid of consistent water supply, public transport links and electricity (the servers run on generators 24X7), a vertical wonder of translucent fiberglass and false roofs had arisen in the suburbs to conform to global standards of ‘how a city ought to look’ from a distance.
And just like the support businesses— for catering, security, transport, house- keeping, etcetera—that had come up around the BPO industry to extract their share of profit, I moved around in its orbit as well for some time as I got better and better with my mock calls.
(This essay was part of a ‘Studying Internet in India’ initiative by the Centre for Internet and Society)