By Peter DeHaan
I recently stumbled onto a TV program entitled Bombay Calling. It was about an offshore call center, providing a compelling exposé of an India-based outsourcing call center and the people who worked there. In a gripping documentary style, it showed both the good and the bad in offshore call centers. Just as proponents of offshoring would find plenty to celebrate, opponents would likewise be encouraged. I was both mesmerized and saddened by what I saw.
Although I have been privileged to visit many call centers in the United States, I have not had the opportunity to tour an offshore operation. Through the eye of the camera, I was fascinated to witness a call center in a culture for which I was not too familiar, functioning in a manner that was very familiar. I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the same call center conventions repeated in this overseas operation (with only a few adaptations to accommodate culture). I was greatly encouraged with the bright-eyed, enthusiastic workforce, their can-do spirit, and an optimistic outlook. How wonderful it would be to have a call center — regardless of location — filled with reps like these; but, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The show begins by introducing us to Kaz Lalani. Not only does he outsource calls to Bombay, India, but he also operates call centers in other countries. Kaz boasts that his Indian reps have a strong work ethic. They try hard and really care — unlike agents in Britain, he states (which is where this outbound campaign is targeted). His experience with British agents was not positive. He says they don’t want to work and are always watching the clock, leaving the moment their scheduled shift is over. Not so with their Indian counterparts, who work hard and eagerly stay late when needed.
There is an air of joyous excitement and capable confidence among the agents. The call center is filled with hard-working, fun-loving staff who enjoy their co-workers, their jobs, and the work they do. Staff interviews reveal why. “It’s a great job, for good pay,” states one agent, “even for an undergrad.” Another boasts that he makes more than his girlfriend — even though she has a graduate degree. A third employee dropped out of engineering school for the express purpose of pursuing a call center career.
As astounding as all this seems, the average starting pay for a call center agent in Bombay was reported to be more that four times the average Indian income. This is why young people to leave rural areas for call center work in Bombay. This does cause some angst, both for parents — who lament a loss of tradition — and their children — who must adapt to city life without the nearby help of family. Nevertheless, there is a general acquiescence to the situation. Several of the agents send money back home, pay bills for their parents, or do things to increase the standard of living for their family; all of which is made possible by their call center jobs.
With even more call centers opening in Bombay, these agents are acutely aware of the great demand for their English-speaking skills. They perceive this ability as their unrestricted ticket to opportunity and success. A paradoxical aside is that the show’s producers occasionally resorted to subtitles for some of their English-speaking interviewees — a necessary decision, which, by my reckoning, was not made often enough.
Eight months later, the call center is hurriedly expanding. They are calling Australia (first shift) and the U.K. (second shift). Some reps have been promoted to training, supervisory, and QA positions. However, the dark-side of their sharp rise in income is beginning to show. One rep proudly admits that he has become materialistic; another longs for more time to spend with his wife and child; a third wants to leave the call center, but can’t — he has become accustomed to his new standard of living. Many of the reps are now complaining about the stress of the job — and they turn to partying and alcohol — every night — to dull the pain.
With the rapid expansion, not all of the new hires are ideal and some do not work out; sales numbers plummet. Some reps aren’t concerned — they’ll just go to another center; others are worried, but at a loss what to do. One once confident rep has lost his swagger — he has gone two days without a sale — and has a shell-shocked glaze.
This call center is no longer producing like it used to — or like the others ones in the network. An ultimatum is given. Some agents are sent to retraining, others are terminated. The call center is now a somber and dreary place. A pall hangs over the cubicles; the optimism is gone. Eventually the operation is scaled back to 25 agents — some of the agents we met survive the cuts, others do not. Kaz turns his concentration to other call centers.
In Bombay, call center work is truly changing the lives of it’s agents — for better and for worse.