Monday, 30 April 2012

Call Center Connundrum

Our beloved Prime Minister who believes in the "Silence is Golden" philosophy is a man with many distinctions. The only person in the history of this political melting pot of a country that is India, to have graced this august chair without ever contesting a single election in the public arena. Down to his 8th year as the custodian of Indian politics, this man has been the Governor of India's federal bank - The Reserve bank of India and also has had a very successful stint as Finance minister. The economic liberalisation of the 90s that took India by storm has to be attributed to his master mind. Indian economy was poised for a revolutionary shift from agrarian to industrial. This economic 'reform' brought about changes that were previously only read about in 'Forbes' by the business and political classes. Information technology was the next big thing to hit the world after England's great Industrial revolution. Jobs were aplenty and money flowed like Delhi's large open air sewers - rapid and unrestricted. 

Imperialist America & opulent Europe already reeling under pressures of escalating costs from operating from home was always looking for greener & cheaper pastures to cut their costs to less than a third. India was their golden goose. With a large English speaking population and dime a dozen technical & vocational institutions churning out graduates by the hour, they had literally struck gold. The western world's second gold rush had begun and everybody looked east. The first step in cutting burgeoning domestic operations cost, they had to 'outsource' a significant portion of their routine work to countries that spoke English and whose workers were willing to offer quality services at a price very minuscule as compared to their compatriots. The 'call centers' were thus christened and a new services business swept millions of undergraduates off their feet. 

The call centers had its Indian workers synchronize their watches to West Coast, East Coast, Central European and Greenwich Mean time zones. The Indians toiled in the night when the west woke up to their balmy mornings. Call centers were designed to offload certain functions that carried little risk if handled from outside such as handling customer queries on products and services, managing customer complaints, telebanking and telemarketing. South Indian cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai proved to be excellent breeding grounds for such enterprises to flourish. A large graduate constituency with a flair for English. This modern day pied piper lured many under graduate students who wanted some extra money for a better social life and a tryst with the corporate life. The benefits were purely mutual. While the companies raked in billions they also created a whole new horizon of jobs. Young men and women could live a life they had always dreamt of, independently. 

What is interesting is the way young India adapted itself to this novel business venture. Well in my personal opinion it was quite hypocritical of the west to have found a 'low cost business center' as they call it, but on the other hand, they hid this fact from their American and European customers. Not till recently, before the Democrats flaunted their patriotism by denouncing the concept of outsourcing, when the average American dialed a 555 number, he never could have imagined that a router diverted his calls to a far off call center nestled in a tranquil residential colony in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Of course, the farce continued to fool thousands of westerners since the adept Indians had been well trained by 'linguistic trainers' to adopt an American twang or a British twirl in their heavily Indian accented tongue. 

Gangadhar became Gregory and Lalitha became Laura.  This very unofficial  baptism   of sorts converted thousands of chaste Hindus and Muslims to Christian catholics overnight for their night jobs. Unsuspecting customers of home appliances, PCs, banks and even insurance companies would dial up the company's toll free number to find  relief to their queries. Gangadhar aka Gregory would answer these calls and would read out pre - typed answers from his computer screen for typical queries. These call center 'executives' were trained to maintain composure when faced with severe flak, to always address the discerning customer politely with mam and Sir suffixes. Initially, the customers found it extremely practical to be able to talk to a 'company representative' and discuss their issues freely and sometimes even got a quick fire remedy. For certain out of the box technical queries, the poor Indian chap who had no idea about would request for an extended time for arriving at a solution. The call center execs were discouraged from getting personal with the callers, since it would disclose their identities. The westerner would find it a breach of trust if they had to speak to an Asian about their problems and would file an expensive lawsuit against the company. 

The call centers spawned a modern day evil - Telemarketing. Unscrupulous service providers would sell off their customers private information such as names and telephone numbers to many of these telemarketing wings of call centers for handsome prices. Hundreds of trained telemarketeers in Bangalore would then call up NewYork, Denver, Atlanta and Los Angeles to pester Americans with products ranging from a diaper to a Ducati, all the while faking their identity & with an uncanny western accent. The delivery managers back in India were under constant pressure to up the sales of the paying company. So a deluge of calls to America were the order of the day. 

However it was all smooth sailing for the Indian economy as these IT enabled services or ITeS provided much needed relief on the employment front and also created a robust demand for electronics, fashion accessories, cosmetics and automobiles due to the surplus cash available for disposal at the hands of these hundreds of thousands of call center employees. This bubble did survive quite a long tenure and though its girth has reduced significantly these days as the westerners have moved on to even more cheaper shores such as China, Russia and Philippines. 

I have realised after much observation that call centers were created with the specific purpose of distancing an organisation's (particularly banks, insurance cos and FMCG cos) customer base from the organisation itself. These 'middle men' listen to both sides and act as messengers who charge a hefty price. 

In India, call centers make the experience of a complaint lodging and resolution - more harrowing than it would have been if it had been a direct face to face interaction. First of, the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) has been built by such a clever architect that if the customer is in a hurry and is in dire need of a fast response, he would as well give up in frustration since the options & instructions read out by a pre - recorded voice are so verbose and rolled out in such a dull pace. The interaction with a machine drives you nuts and you have to wait at least a good 5 minutes till you hear an option of connecting to a human operator. 

After listening to their emotionless welcome and exchanging other unnecessary pleasantries, you are asked to state your name, address, registered email ID, telephone number, date of birth, your policy number, no of units, sum assured, account number,card number, last transaction amount, last payment made etc etc and etc you are finally asked to state the intention of your call. While all you had to tell them was that your credit card was stolen by some nincompoop while you took the bus or the metro and the company had to block the card 'immediately'. They expect you to remember a plethora of numbers and figures while you are sweating like a pig under stress laid out on the slaughter bench. After you rack your brains for all this information, you are put on hold and then given a lengthy transaction ID and you HAVE to note it down on a paper!!! No! these call center execs do not facilitate you with an SMS of the same to your registered mobile number. 

Imagine, this was a leaf out of my personal experience when I had lost a whopping 9 credit and debit cards on the Delhi Metro and I could fortunately block all cards thanks to another call center 'Just Dial' and with the help of my not so bad memory. 

These call centers are not operated directly by the product manufacturers themselves in order to cut on obvious handling costs. These are companies that handle 'accounts'. So any given call center employee working in a call center hard pressed for revenue and reduction of costs would be handling at least 2 accounts. Accounts are original product manufacturers & service providers with whom the end customer would usually have a grievance. The executives usually are discouraged using logic, intuition and intelligence and are programmed to burp out preset responses. Therefore, many a times, we end up shouting at the poor call center executive, when our queries are not answered and we are talking to a new person each time we dial the telephone numbers to register a complaint or to follow up on the same. 

Today, practically all businesses have outsourced their customer grievance redressal cells to these call centers spread across India. Most of us have now realised their worth and standing and yet we call these guys every time we have an issue with a product or a service. Things do happen and actions are taken and not all is wrong. This business is in its adolescence & is slowing maturing. Many businesses have come out with novel ideas where customers are not harassed by long holds, machine talks and recurrent responses. This is a wonderful business tool and if put to proper use can weave out magic. 

Thank you for reading this post and have a pleasant evening. 

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