Inside an Indian Call Center: "Spread the Wealth"

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from India. For more, click here.

Chennai - We’ve all talked to “Jennifer,” the girl who calls you up on Saturday afternoons trying to offload a Direct TV subscription, or "Alan" who answers the tech support line when your HP printer busts again. Ever wondered who these people really are and what they think of you?

Twenty minutes from the center of Chennai, down a narrow ally on the second floor of an old yellowing building, the Call Center InfoSearch buzzes and the phones never stop. Sixty English-speaking employees call Australia in the morning, England in the afternoon, and America all night.

I talked to 23-year-old Saravama Jothi, a.k.a. “Alan,” and 27-year-old Vimesh Valaalan, a.k.a. “Jim,” about their experience braving the toughest but most lucrative shift: America overnight.

Straight out of college, the two went into BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) because they could earn more money faster than in any other industry. Their starting monthly salary was 10,000 rupees, a little under US $300. Every three months they stayed on the job, monthly pay grew by 3,000 rupees. There’s a big incentive to start young and hang out as long as you can stand it. The average call center employee is 22. And it doesn't take too long to rise through the ranks. In about seven years one of 60 callers can realistically become one of four managers.

It's a tough life. They stay up ten hours a night calling Americans, who are generally annoyed. They only get a few scattered five-minute breaks to rush to the bathroom, and then return to their desks to discover another 50 calls blinking on their service queue.

“We hate phones,” Vimesh says. They complain of back, neck and stomach pain, partly caused by hunching over a computer, and partly caused by irregular sleeping patterns. In the summer, it's tough to sleep during the intense heat of the daytime. “It’s not simple working in a call center,” says Saravama.

Talking to the Americans, I’m told, is the good part of the job. Sure, there’s some abuse now and then, but thankfully most Americans save these callers time by “hanging up right away if they’re not interested,” rather than lingering on the line. "I'm proud of talking to Americans; I can sell them anything," a 22-year-old call center employee named Rakesh Kumar tells me. He lives with his parents and spends the bulk of his salary on designer clothes, clubs, and music electronics. He would love to see America, but the goods will have to do for now.

It's all about "building rapport" with American callers, they tell me. The key to the sell is not just the product, but the personal connection. So they always ask first how their potential customer is doing and "how the weather is," as they’re taught in a week of "U.S. Culture Training." Vimesh is so successful at this that some elderly people tell him they wait for his calls. He wishes he could call them more often, but their phones are run by a machine that automates whose number gets dialed and when. On top of this, they aren't supposed to be on any one call for more than 5 minutes. They have to make their friends fast.

Speed is of the essence. These callers need to make 30 sales a month, one per day. They dial 700 numbers each day to accomplish this. Machines answer 300 of those calls. 200 people just hang up. 195 say their parents or the homeowners are gone. Of the remaining 5, only one pulls through. Lots of talk. Little love.

Yet these men embrace their proximity to America, the land of opportunity. The same things that drew them to the call center life -- the ability to rise through the ranks fast based on merit (sales) -- also attract them to America. Vimesh and Saravama both see America as a place where “money flows" without getting trapped in the hands of a few corrupt elite -- at least better than in India. Vimesh tells me, “it's a place where rules must be obeyed” and no one is beyond the law. In Chennai, they complain, the rich stay rich because they break the law and horde wealth.

Spread the wealth. That’s their motto. But some Americans resent just that: spreading their jobs overseas. I ask Vimesh and Saravama what they think of objections to outsourcing. Vimesh's response is: these are “American companies” and “American customers” so “why shouldn’t they benefit?” Saravama adds, “We say the customer is god for us because they pay for our product. If they buy a product, normally we’re going to get benefit. The company will benefit. Everyone will benefit.”

Others may debate the political implications of their work. But at the end of the day, as Saravama says, "It's our job."

IndiaAmar Bakshi