Inside an Indian call center: the big disconnect

I spent this past year teaching English phonetics and customer handling skills to computer technicians at a call center in south India.

The news of my departure from Kansas to India elicited a variety of reactions from friends and colleagues. Most thought that it was an interesting thing to do, but some questioned the morality of supporting an industry that was taking jobs away from American workers. I wasn't too worried about the morality. After all, I'm American, and I was going to India for a job.

I was curious to see what an Indian call center would be like. I imagined a high-tech operation, staffed by engineers getting top rupee vis-à-vis pretty much everyone else. As it turned out, I was both right and wrong.

When the new, white Toyota SUV picked me up for my first day of work, we drove for half an hour through Chennai's dusty, crowded streets. Our car vied for road space with stray dogs, cows, bicycles, shoeless school kids neatly dressed in uniform, and motorcycles carrying tightly squeezed families of five. The building we eventually arrived at was sleek and bustled with activity.

Soon after this first visit, I began teaching three-week classes to newly hired technicians. In this time, I was supposed to teach them American phonetics, a call script, and how best to handle their future customers. It was a lot to do in three weeks, but the students were enthusiastic. I'd say, "Vvvvvibrate your vvvvee's!" and the room would buzz noisily with the sound.

Though diligent about improving their accents, they were most interested in learning more about Americans – and what they could expect from them.

Most of these students lived in fear of irate customers. Horror stories circulated from experienced agents back to my students about enraged customers screaming at them, demanding to speak to an American – someone who could "speak English." I would prepare them for this possibility by having them act out an angry customer berating an agent. They loved these little dramas. One would energetically pretend to be an outraged customer ("What are you doing? Playing computer games!? I've been on hold for 45 minutes! Get me an American right NOW!"), and the other "agent" would practice cooling him down.

Teaching the introductory classes was fun, but it was when I began teaching retraining classes that I began to get another perspective about what this job was like for agents.

Retraining classes were for five days and for agents who were getting lots of customer complaints. These agents did a lot of grumbling themselves. I was frequently asked, "How can we empathize with frustrated customers when we are so frustrated ourselves?"

Transportation was provided for them, but it came at least an hour early. When they asked their managers for dinner breaks, they were routinely told to "take a few more calls." One call can last for 10 minutes, or it can last for hours. They told me that most agents ended up with one 15-minute break in a 10-hour day. Once the work day ended, they were required to attend a two-hour meeting to discuss ways of improving productivity. Then, exhausted and hungry, but finally finished with work, they had to wait another hour before they could get a ride home. For this they earned about $400 a month. By local standards this is not tragically low, but it is hardly a princely salary for a college-educated employee.

Spending a year in India was interesting in many respects, not least because it allowed me a glimpse of outsourcing from an Indian perspective. Call centers are rapidly spreading from traditionally tech-friendly cities, such as Bangalore, into Chennai, Hyderabad, Bombay, and other Indian metropolises. The outsourcing of technological support is not surprising considering the glut of inexpensive computers for sale in the United States.

I hope that working conditions for agents improve in time, but I am unsure. For every agent who burns out and quits after six months on the job, there are 50 more eager to replace him or her. Now that I am back in Kansas, I sometimes think of the agents I met in India. I am cheered by the memory of their earnestness – and the delectable sound of a room humming with perfectly vibrated Vs.

Jane E. Galvin teaches English as a second language internationally.

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