Monday, August 11, 2008

Inside the call center training room



In the interests of full disclosure, as I write this on the morning of Aug. 11, I sit in my hotel room near Kennedy Airport in New York City, where 23 of us await flights to Chicago. Last night, after about 24 hours of travel from India, we arrived at Kennedy Airport only to learn that our original connecting flight to Chicago was canceled.

Due to computer issues and some long days, this blogger has gotten behind in providing you with details of the Kelley School’s adventure in the land of silks, spices and sacred cows. Please keep reading this blog, because we don’t want you to miss a thing. There are many more stories to tell.

As mentioned in the previous posting, on Thursday the students learned about BPOs – Business Process Outsourcing – up close.

On our way to India, among the many in-flight entertainment options was a movie called “Outsourced.” The romantic comedy is about a man who is coerced into training Indian replacements for his U.S. colleagues working with him at a novelties company call center. The leading man moves to India to train a group of villagers there on how to deal with Americans and sell them "kitsch to redneck schmucks."

His Indian assistant asks him, "Excuse me. What is 'redneck'? What is 'kitsch'? What is 'schmuck'?" And what are these products? American eagle sculptures. Wisconsin cheesehead hats. Branding irons for hamburgers. Of course, it wouldn’t be a comedy about India if there weren’t cows involved too – one finds its way into the call center.

Typical of other films in the genre, he’s like a like a fish out of water, but as you might expect, he gets the girl and develops a tremendous admiration for his Indian colleagues, who ultimately get outsourced when their jobs go to China (For more about the film, go to http://www.outsourcedthemovie.com/).

It’s a funny story, but as we knew, far from real. Our first stop Thursday was at Allsec, a BPO in Chennai we first visited last year. Walking into the lobby, we saw evidence of how hard they work to familiarize themselves with American culture. A framed photograph of the “Man Who Could Fly” – Michael Jordan – is proudly on display in the reception area.

Most people may think that offshoring of call centers and similar operations is a new phenomenon, but the first such operation was established by Pan Am in 1956. Today, almost 70 percent of U.S. customer service takes place over the telephone. General Electric was the first company to have a call center in India – Kelley students saw it last year (Today, it’s a sold-off subsidiary called Genpact).

At Allsec, we were shepherded into a typical classroom and greeted by “Sandy,” “Amanda,” “Gregory” and “Richard.” There are about 35 school chairs in the room, which is wired with a computer and whiteboard.

The company was started in 1998 with 40 employees. Today, it has more than 3,000 employees at six locations, including those in Chennai and Bangalore and even one in the Philippines. Most employees have a 48-hour work week.

Sandy opens the discussion with an analogy. It’s about two parents of a child. They both work and have hired a babysitter.

“What this mom does is she appoints someone else to take care of the baby,” she says. “This is what outsourcing is all about. An outsourcer is a client who appoints someone else – that is the company – and that company does the job for the client.”

She is quick to explain the difference between a “call center” and a “contact center,” the latter includes functions such as Web support, e-mail and other non-verbal forms of communication.

But it is Indians' view and “neutral” use of the English language that makes India such an ideal foreign site for American call centers, points out Gregory Manoj, also known as Gregory Watson, in a tongue that clearly sounds American.

“The way you see most of us speaking right now is not the way we normally speak,” he says. “We’ve been trained to talk like this so that we’re easily understood by somebody who we speak to over the phone.

“For us, English is what we call a received pronunciation. English is not our mother tongue, which is why to get somebody for whom English is their mother tongue -- like a Britisher, an Australian or a person from Ireland -- it would be very different for them to change their native accent, he adds. “With this added advantage, it makes it easier for us to adapt to difference kinds of clients from different countries.

“What comes to people as an actual talent comes to us as a scientific process.”

It’s probably similar to the linguistic training that TV anchors get. You'd never know that NBC anchor Brian Williams was from New Jersey. For the record, students liked hearing them do their various English dialects.

Greg points out that working in a call or contact center is seen as a full-time career. He’s been at in the industry for about five and half years and his supervisor, Richard, has been with Allsec for seven years. One of other trainers in our session is a college-educated physicist and someone else I met in Chennai previously was a lawyer before going to work at a BPO.

“To get into a call center, you have to be an undergraduate (degree holder) and that is a very strict requirement,” he says. “The quality of labor available for this particular industry is highly skilled, which is why you find operations in banking, for example.”

The stereotype of a call center – in the U.S. or India – is that of a “boiler room.” As you would expect, the room is filled with cubicles. It’s clean. One side of the room is decorated with a Hawaiian theme, including palm trees, tiki idols, sea shells and leis.

On another floor is a room with photos of team leaders on sheets of paper with a bulls-eye on them – workers get to review their boss this way. There are also pictures of American presidents, but there’s no indication that they want to be involved our electoral process.

Allsec has been growing. On Aug. 1, it acquired i2i Telesource, which employs about 1,500 call agents in 13 locations across the country. This and other future efforts may lead to more “rural BPOs,” located in smaller communities, doing non-verbal work (such as medical transcription), Richard says.

Which brings us back to “Outsourced.” Maybe, some day, art will imitate life.

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