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Monday, December 24, 2012

Read: Article on India's Call Centers

A very good article and read on India's call center culture by Morgan Hartley and Chris Walker for Forbes.


Five students in business casual and the two authors in board shorts were crammed into a small classroom in Southern Bangalore.  It was one of those cubicle classrooms, surrounded by three just like it, with a small whiteboard on one end and the teacher sitting at a desk on the other.  You could see into the other empty classrooms through the matrix of windows that formed walls around them, supported by bright orange metal framing. Three students slouched wearily in their seats on one side; they barely spoke enough English to understand the teacher. The other two sat opposite, more attentive, pens poised over notepads half full with scribbles. The teacher was glaring at the weary ones.
“But sir…”
“No! I want you to speak without it. Close the book Sajar!”
Sajar was clearly at a loss for what to do. He glanced at his notebook hesitantly.
“I said close the damned book!”
The student looked at his teacher pleadingly, searching for sympathy but finding only a scowl. He closed the front of his notebook nervously. Deep could be intimidating.
“Good –” said Deep. “Now, recite two sentences from what you had written.”
The student kept his head bent down in silence.
“No? How about one sentence? Just ONE sentence Sajar!”
More silence.
The teacher’s voice turned soft with contempt. “See, once the book is closed you’re dumb. Ab-so-lut-ely dumbstruck.”
Deep whirled around and faced the remainder of his call center training class, all of whom were hoping to get jobs working in one of Bangalore’s customer service centers. His sweeping gaze settled upon his favorite student.
“Krishna – Go.”
Called to attention, a gangly Indian quickly straightened up in his seat and placed his hands, neatly folded, upon his desk. He was easily the best dressed student in the class, striped button down shirt and pleated slacks riding above a pair of conspicuously polished leather shoes. Krishna drew in a sharp breath, and cleared his voice.
“Good morning friends. Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this morning on the topic of killing the girl child…” he recited in the singsong voice of memorization.
In what was supposed to be a spontaneous discussion about female infanticide in India, Krishna’s delivery was every bit as scripted as whatever Sajar had written in his notebook. But the teacher, Deep, didn’t seem to mind. At least Krishna had bothered to commit his words to memory. Krishna was the star student, who always came to class prepared. He had more pressure than most to land a job at a call center.
Krishna Shah is 30 years old and unmarried. To a conservative Indian family like his, that combination is unacceptable. The South Indian comes from a culture where expectations are that men marry by the time they are 25. But in India, one of the requisites of the desirable bachelor is a respectable job, and Krishna hasn’t been able to land one. Though he spent years working abroad in Dubai for a graphic design firm, he hasn’t been able to transfer that experience back into a job at home. Now, Krishna is anxious to settle down and start a family, pressured by the rumors circulating among his village 40 kilometers south of Mysore.
“My family and friends will speak fine when they’re in front of me, but as soon as I go away, they backstab me like anything,” he revealed during one of our class breaks, referring to gossip around the dining room table when he isn’t home.
Krishna thinks that a job at a call center is the key to tying the knot. In India, the customer service jobs are known to be respectable and well-paying, enough to give Krishna the income, and the title, to become a suitable bachelor. While a typical wage earner earns 5,000 rupees a month, a call center employee takes in as much as 15,000 rupees (300 dollars).
The bachelor enrolled in the four month call center training course at Orion Edutech after hearing about it from a friend in Bangalore, and his parents agreed to heft the 45,000 rupee bill (900 dollars). Located on the third floor of a nondescript office building in Bangalore’s Jayanagar district, Orion is an Indian equivalent to American vocational schools like ITT Tech or Devry University. There are over 100 Orion campuses across India, and the private courses are popular among prospective call center applicants in India as a resume booster to give them a competitive edge in the hiring process.
By Nikhil Kulkarni
Infosys' tech campus in Bangalore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As long as your accent is good, it’s not that hard to get a job on the floor, because of the high burnout rate and booming industry.  There are over 265,000 BPO jobs in Bangalore alone, of which call center positions represent a sizable proportion. BPO is the buzzword form of business process outsourcing – the trend of multinational companies likeMicrosoft to base services or entire departments in India, and which has been causing dire headlines in the United States about jobs shipped overseas since the early 2000’s. Indeed, the effects of the industry’s growth in India are easy to see. India’s ‘garden city’ is surrounded by gated tech campuses like Wipro and Infosys that rival the size and splendor of those in the Silicon Valley, complete with cappuccino bars, movie theatres, and golf cart lanes.
Many, like Krishna, want in on a piece of the action, and private courses like Orion’s promise to help by teaching Western cultural mannerisms. The courses also claim to help boost English proficiency and conversational skills.
That was how we ended up in the back of Deep’s classroom. Orion had let us sit in on a few sessions in return for our participation in cultural discussions and accent training.
“Chris, Morgan, I want to hear about your thoughts, on killing the girl child.”
Every student in the classroom leaned a little further over their desks and looked at us expectantly.
Morgan began to speak about the injustices of infanticide, and Deep interjected excitedly. “Class, I want you to listen carefully to how he is pronouncing his R’s!“ Krishna started furiously scribbling down notes.
A primary goal of courses like Orion’s is to eradicate what is known as Mother Tongue Influence, or MTI for short.  MTI refers to the Indian accents and vocal inflections that remain after learning English as a second language. Courses like Deep’s specialize in Accent Neutralization, which can have students repeat syllables like “pa pa pa pa pa” for 30 minutes at a time until they begin to lose their Indian accent.  The goal is not to sound like an American, but to learn to speak without any accent, with perfect clarity, so that anyone can understand you over the distortion of a phone line.
“The system is rated on a ten point scale” Deep told us.  “It measures your English for cross cultural understandability.”
Deep says he scores a 9.55 on the test. When Chris asked how he might do, he was told he wouldn’t score above an 8.5.
“You have a California accent.” Deep explained. “And also, English isn’t really your language. It’s the Queen’s language.”
Deep seemed to have strong opinions about everything, and liked to declare them as facts. He told us he’d been in the call center industry long enough to know exactly what the perfect employee looks like, and when an applicant was likely to be hired. “In my class, every one of them will get hired eventually. I can bloody well guarantee it. It will just take some longer than others.”
But Deep considered himself more than a simple accent trainer.  He believed that his training had another mission: to prepare his students for the culture shock and social trauma that almost all call center employees suffer. He understood better than most how difficult it could be to work the graveyard shift night after night, the havoc those hours can wreak on the body’s physical cycles, and how the job could make one lose touch with their family and friends. He also knew, from a long and hard personal battle with drug addiction, what a huge jump that disposable income can mean to a young adult suddenly released from the strict oversight of an Indian family. For better or for worse, he knew that each of his students would be profoundly changed by their time on the call center floor.
“When they go in, When they come out—you can’t match the two people,” he warned.

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