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The dark side of call centers!

By Anubhav Arora and Vivek Kaul
March 02, 2005 14:18 IST
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Trin! Trin! The phone rings, and Stephanie (an alias used by the call centre employee taking the call) has 20 seconds to get ready with her headphones and chant her opening script.

"Thank you for choosing *** (the name of the company). My name is Stephanie. How may I help you?"

Guess what she hears in response? "Oh my God! My call has been routed to India. Hey poor girl, do you understand English?"

Stephanie replies, " Yes ma'am, I understand English, how may I help you?"

To this, she gets a rejoinder: "I can't access my Internet. Do you know what 'access' means? I am sure you don't! 'Access' means to approach, to enter or exit something. Like access to the Internet. Did you get that?"

Exasperated Stephanie still maintains her cordiality and says: "Yes ma'am, I understand and I am here to help you out with this."

To which she gets the answer: "You Indians are so cheap. You people are taking away our jobs. You work for less money. How much do you get? 10 dollars per day? Just tell them to pay you as much they pay to somebody working in the US and see how all outsourcing will end."

Unfortunately, the caller's problem was very unusual and Stephanie had to consult someone. She politely asked the caller to hold on until she could fetch some help from her supervisor.

The caller was in a bad mood and started all over again. She said, "Oh! I had forgotten that you are an Indian. You guys are not only cheap but also dumb. Go seek help. Go learn something. What can I do, my call has been connected to an Indian. I cannot degrade myself anymore. I will call again and pray that I get a sophisticated American call centre executive online next time."

With these lines the caller hung up.

Hapless Stephanie, was almost about to sob, but still had to be affable (else she would lose her job). Isn't this an act of maltreatment? Just because Stephanie can't imitate Americans and gets recognised to be an Indian the moment she enunciates her opening script, the American caller castigates her.

This is one of the many instances that take place in call centres everyday, especially in call centres where the employees are not permitted to divulge their identity and location.

Before this episode took place with somebody we know, we never knew that we Indians were so bad at English that we don't even know what 'access' means? Or is it our fault that countries like America are outsourcing their jobs to India?

Call centres have transformed the definition of a stupendous customer service from 'delighting the customer' to 'enduring their vituperation.'

Human tendency is not to question something that is doing well. As they say 'when it ain't broke, why fix it?' By pointing out all that is not right with call centres in India we do run the risk of being labelled as a Cassandra. But being human beings who can think, we should be aware of the 'yin' and the 'yang' of it.

In this article, we try and look at all that is not right with call centres in India.

Health hazards

The human body has its own routine and whosoever goes against it cannot stay healthy. For a call centre employee, it starts with stress and insomnia in the early stages and ultimately leads to premature graying of hair, hair loss and digestive diseases.

Call centre employees also suffer from aches related to arms, hands and wrists due to continuous use of keyboard and mouse. This is aggravated by the fact that they have to multitask.

A call centre employee has to check call procedures, run diverse tests for troubleshooting (at technical support call centres), fill entries in the CRM software, check for updates and check for account status of the customer. All this has to happen on a single call. Long hours of sitting and attending calls leads to back and shoulder pains as well.

Furthermore, due to exorbitant exposure to computer screens and headphones (for a period of 8 to 10 hours per day), auditory and visionary problems also set in. Hearing impairments and ear infections can also be caused due to continuous usage of headsets.

At the same time the fact that call centre employees attend calls non-stop for the time they are at work, voice impairment can also not be ruled out.

People working night shifts face arduous problems. By the time they adapt to shift timings, the shift might change. This changes their sleep-awake cycle. This requires the body clock to adjust again, resulting in psychological and physical problems. Plus no amount of sleeping during the day can compensate for sleeping at night.

Moreover, while taking calls an employee is under a lot of pressure as so many people are observing the call -- the voice trainer, the team leader or probably even an official of the company, which has outsourced the process. One has to keep all of them happy.

Moreover, when a call centre acquires a new account there are manpower problems in the beginning and meeting the Service Level Agreement requirements becomes difficult. As a consequence, many employees don't get breaks and keep working non-stop.

A British historian, Thomas Carlyle, once said, 'Ill health of a body or of mind is defeat. Health alone is victory. Let all men, if they can manage it, contrive to be healthy.' But for call centre employees managing health is a surreal proposition.

A breeding ground for vices / consumerism in call centres

Warren Buffet, world's greatest stock market investor, once said: 'Bad habits are like chains that are too light to feel, and too heavy to carry.' The same happens to a lot of youngsters who join a BPO (business process outsourcing) job.

It gives them freedom for night outs, night parties, discotheques and probably a lot more! They pick up vices and hardly realise where they are heading. What was once considered a vice, becomes the fashion of the day and the more one sees it the more one tends to like it.

A majority of the call centre employees when they take up their first job are in their early twenties. Money, and a good amount of it, comes to them very early in life. Many of them cannot handle this. There is danger off them falling prey to bad habits.

Boozing and smoking is fairly common even among 'women' who work for call centres. Given the stressful nature of their jobs call centre employees like to unwind whenever they get a day off. The unwinding then comes down to going to a pub or a disco or maybe going on a shopping spree. Anything that involves spending a good amount of money acts as a stress buster.

Call centre employees have also become easy targets for banks and other financial services companies falling over one another for offering loans, credit cards and other financial services. Stories of call centre employees having run up huge credit card bills are fairly common.

We all have aspirations as consumers. If one is confident of one's earning capabilities in the days to come there is nothing wrong in borrowing.

The key assumption that one makes in such a situation is that in the future the circumstances will be much more favourable. Unfortunately, as far as the call centres are concerned, this assumption is unrealistic. People have already come to the conclusion that India has become the outsourcing hub of the world and that the BPO boom will last forever.

This is a surprisingly simplistic and overtly optimistic assessment to make. It has been observed over the years that any new business opportunity that comes up sees a lot of new entrants in the initial days. After some time consolidation takes place, firms close down or merge and only the best survive. This might lead to job losses in the days to come at call centres.

Further, as technology progresses many back-end jobs will get automated and this might lead to more job losses. Consumerism would have set in at greater levels in call centres by then and this could lead to a host of other problems.

Relationship problems

A major problem for call centre employees is to take out time for relationships. There is hardly any time for family and friends. The predominant reason is mismatch of timings. Call centres follow the calendar of the country they are servicing, so their holidays also come accordingly. It is normal for call centre employees not to celebrate festivals with their loved ones. This leads to problems at home.

Stories of newly married couples, one of whom works for a call centre, meeting only on weekends and that too if the call centre employee has an off day, are fairly common. In such a situation one definitely needs to ask, 'What is the future of their family?'

Also, the displeasure, exasperation, monotony and frustration of the call centre employees affects their social life, which in turn affects their emotional self.

The change of 'avtaar': Voice and Accent training

Call centre employees are taught how to imitate the firang accent. And if one is not good at it, one runs the risk of being thrown out. The person might be better than others in all aspects, but if he is a poor mimic, he has to leave.

However, some call centres do retain such people but for jobs they had never applied for. Nowadays, many call centres are shifting to neutralised accents but most of them still insist on a proper firang accent.

This has also led to what we call the BPOisation of Indian languages wherein the call centre employees tend to speak even their mother tongues with an firang accent.

In closing

Every coin has two sides, and this is no different. Call centres are giving jobs to a lot of people with a basic minimum qualification. At the same time this is leading to other problems, which are not good for the individuals who work for these call centres.

In the hype and the hoopla that surrounds the call centres we might tend to ignore these issues. But by the time we start addressing them it might be too late and the bubble would have burst.

As the last few lines of a famous nursery rhyme go, 'And all the kings horses and all the kings men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.'

Anubhav Arora is a student, ICFAI Business School, Hyderabad. He formerly worked for an American BPO based out of Noida. Vivek Kaul is Research Scholar, ICFAI University.
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