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Indian Call Centre Industry: Goldmine of Opportunities or Hotbed of Exploitation?
Premilla D’Cruz, Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India
Ernesto Noronha, Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India
Indian call centre industry suffers from contradictions. The agents enjoy good remuneration, and posh office facilities, while their work load is very demanding. The agents of non-technical call centres suffer from monotonous tasks, and cyber bullying from customers. The technical call centres, in contrast, provide their agents with challenging and satisfying jobs. It is important for call centre owners to re-design their work systems using new technologies, while at the same time keeping their costs under control.
Indian call centre industry is approximately fifteen years old.A product of the ICT convergence, and the globalization wave that swept through many countries in the
A Call centre is a place with a network of computers and telephones that handles voice based Interaction with the customers of a company.
Estimated number of employees in Indian call centres serving international clients: 0.5 million
Global share of Indian Contact Centre Industry: 23%
Examples of multinational American companies that have outsourced Call Centre function to India... HSBC, HP, Microsoft, DELL, American Express, Genpact,Convergys, GE Capital
late 1980s, the Industry experienced exponentialgrowth during its first few years, propelling India to the topposition in its global market share of the industry.Within India, the industry was looked upon by the urban youth as a major employer, opening up new horizons for the youth whose job prospects were otherwise bleak. Gradually, a few English speaking countries in the developing world caught up with India in providing the call centre services, and some, notably, Philippines, competing with India vis-a-vis their market share. During the last five years, the Industry’s growth rate in international arena has stabilized, and this is the right time for the stake holders of the Industry to review its various aspects, so that a fresh impetus could be given to the industry in its way forward. This article focuses particularly on the human resource aspects of Indian call centres serving international clients. For a few important statistics related to Indian call centres see the box on the right.
Particularly worth examining are the various contradictions that characterize the Industry: hoards of youngsters join the call centres as agents, the frontline people who directly interact with the customers, and yet many of them move to fresh employment in other call centres in order to increase their earnings, resulting in high firm-level attrition. The pay packets for the agents are quite attractive, the physical facilities provided to them are equivalent to those of their counterparts in advanced countries, and yet there is a complaint that the working conditions in call centres are oppressive. The call centre agents exhibit a sense of pride at being able to work with international customers, while at the same time, it is reported that the customers of call centres tend to be over aggressive and their interaction with the agents is not always pleasant. In spite of the above problems at work, there has never been a situation of employee unrest at these organizations. In the rest of the article, let us elaborate on the above issues and discuss possible solutions.
The experiences of the call centre employees at work vary, depending on the nature of the call centre at which they work. Call centres are classified based on various factors. Suppose a US based multi-national company A wants to provide a certain kind of support to their customers through a call centre. It can set up and operate the call centre by itself. Alternatively, it can outsource the call centre task to a service provider B in a country like India, in which case the call centre would be located in B’s country, owned and operated by B. B serves the customers of A, and gets its revenues from A. The former call centre is called a captive call centre, and the later a third party call centre. Usually, the number of third party call centres is more than their captive counterparts. Some call centres respond to calls originating from customers and are called inbound call centres; whereas some others proactively call customers and initiate interaction with them, and such call centres are called outbound call centres. Inbound call centres are meant for customer service, whereas outbound ones for telemarketing, customer surveys, bill collection, and raising donations. Some call centres are meant to help customers in solving technical problems, such as installing a software package, or fixing a hardware fault; some others are meant to handle calls of a routine nature, such as a customer query related to the price of a product, or a customer enquiry on when their sales order is going to be delivered. The former is called a technical call centre, whereas the later a non-technical one.
With the emergence of call centres on the Indian business scene,the job prospects for college graduates, particularly those with non-professional degrees like B.A. or B.Sc. have dramatically improved. Earlier, most B. A. degree holders could only hope for a clerical job in a government set up. But now, the same degree holders, if they have studied in English medium, can hope to become a call centre agent, and would earn three times the salary that their counterparts in government offices do. Another attractive feature of the call centres is the initial training that would be imparted by them to their new recruits. The training aims at enablingthe agents to speak English with neutral accent, and wouldhelp them get overfrom the mother tongue influence (MTI), and would expose them to the culture of the customers whom they are going to interact with. In other words, they would learn to think, talk, and act like foreigners. Their clients tend to be reputed international companies.
Average age of an agent : 26 years
Average qualification of an agent: College graduation
Attrition rate 30 % per year
Average salary of an agent Rs 15,000 per month
Average length of a shift: 9 hours, including breaks
Their offices are posh, air conditioned,and are equipped with well designedworkstations, and additional facilities like a gym. With the mushroomingof call centres in all urban areas, it is also easy for the agents to switch their jobs frequently between different firms, and hope for quick upward mobility.The call centre work is supposed to be very demanding, not allowing the agents to relax even for a minute while on duty. This lends additional prestige to the agents’ job, because, in other organizations, their peers are said to have no fulfilling work, and idle away most of their time.
The culture and rules of work at a call centre are governed by two major considerations, customer satisfaction and cost minimization. Both are the result of intense competition in the industry. Because the competition leads to low profit margin per call, the call centre owners automatically tend to maximize the number of calls handled by the agents, by introducing a work system mainly focussed on efficiency in call handling. The number of breaks and duration of breaks while on duty for an agent are well defined and strictly monitored. The technology permits the calls to be recorded and analysed later to detect wastage of time, if any, by the agent during a call. Even when a call is in progress, the supervisor randomly listens to the conversation and signals to the agent if a change in pace of the interaction is needed. The client organizations emphasize the principle “customer is always right.” At the end of a call, feed back is collected from customers on their experience with the call. A poor rating or a complaint against an agent by a customer is taken very seriously.
In non-technical in-bound call centres which handle routine customer queries, the work tends to be monotonous. Most of the time, the agents reel out scripted responses at a rushed pace. There is very little variety to the tasks handled by them, and hence the job satisfaction for the agents tends to be low. After a while, the job becomes so repetitive that the agents become merely “talking machines.” To make matters worse, an agents performance is monitored closely and their performance is evaluated based on a myriad of statistics like average number of calls handled per shift, average time spent on a call, maximum and minimum times spent on a call during a given period, and the duration for which an agent is away from her or his seat. Naturally, such an atmosphere is considered quite stultifying by the employees. An agent cannot help feeling that a supervisor is constantly breathing down their neck.
Another hazard associated with the above jobs is the need to work in shifts. The Indian call centres dealing with clients in North America have to work at night, to match with the day light hours of their customers. Such night shifts, nick named as grave yard shifts, because of the eerie silence of the late night hours, have an adverse impact on the physical health and social life of the employees. Their sleep cycles get disturbed, leading to problems like stress and insomnia. Rarely do they get time to spend with their family and friends.
If stressful working conditions such as the above existed in other industries, the workers would collectively fight through their unions to alleviate such harsh working conditions. In call centres, however, unions are never heard of. An employee experiencing difficulties with her or his work is expected to seek redressal by bringing their problem to the notice of the human resource management department. In other words, the employee grievances are handled within the organization on an individual basis, and not through collective negotiation, particularly of an extra-organizational nature.
There are several reasons for why unionization is avoided by call centres (Noroha and D’Cruz, 2006):
- Call centres belong to a domain completely different from factories, and the thought of unionization is foreign to call centre employees, who see themselves as white-collared workers, associating unions with only blue-collared workers.
- Most of the call centre employees are very young, and do not plan on staying in the organization too long. Therefore, they do not feel motivated to bring about long term changes in the functioning of their current organization.
- Call centre agents consider themselves to be equivalent to software and hardware professionals in the ICT domain, and look down on unionization as completely unbecoming to their professional status.
- The personal goals and purpose of an agent are strongly coupled with the goals of the call centre, and activities like unionization, which are considered as antithetical to the interests of the organization, are viewed with disfavour
For the above reasons, if an agent finds the work unbearable, she or he would seek redressal in their individual capacity, or simply quit their job, but would never resort to collective action.
The stress at work for call centre agents is exacerbated by unpleasant interactions with customers (’Cruz and Noronha, 2014). On discovering that at the other end of the line there is an Indian trying to serve them, some foreign customers feel cheated, and as a consequence, tend to become over aggressive, and, throw a lot of invective at the agents, crossing all limits of decency and civil behaviour. Such behaviour is referred to as cyber bullying. The above cyber bullying includes:
- Vehement accusation that the Indian call centres are robbing jobs from the West
- Angry remarks that the agents are cheating the customers by adopting false Western names
- Insulting observations on the culture and economic backwardness of agents’ country
- Racist comments
In some cases the bullying is provoked by long waiting time experienced by the caller, and in some others by ineffective, and uncomfortably rapid pace of response from the agent. According to the agents, the customers, in most cases, resort to hurling abuses at them without any provocation.
The agents are trained to bear the bullying silently, but they cannot escape the many adverse consequences of exposure to bullying. It leads to loss of self confidence and a lowering of self esteem, causes health problems like somatic ailments and emotional disturbance, and results in decline of productivity.
Obviously, the extent to which cyber bullying effects an agent varies from agent to agent; hardy and sociable agents suffer from it less than soft and introverted ones.
There does not seem to be a short term solution to the cyber bullying problem. When a customer starts using abuses, the agents are advised simply to be patient, display empathy and express apologies. No other reaction is permitted. Sometimes, agents can escalate the call to the team leader or the project manager.
It has been suggested that each call centre should declare openly its policy on cyber bullying: that it considers cyber bullying as a grossly unethical behaviour and would adopt a zero tolerance policy towards such behaviour. Such a declaration should be a part of its contract with the client organization, and should be reiterated to the customers whenever needed. For example, when a customer is going out of control in their accusations, the supervisor can intervene, and remind the customer that insulting remarks and personal attacks are unacceptable, and that she should confine her interaction strictly to the problem at hand.
Emotion Detecting Systems (EDS) can be put to use to detect the likely occurrence of cyber bullying, a few seconds before its actual occurrence, while a call is in progress. When such an equipment gives an alarm about an imminent loss of temper, a higher level person can act in time to minimize the damage.
Good Job Satisfaction in Technical Call Centres
In contrast to non-technical call centres, technical call centres offer challenging tasks to their agents. A customer comes to them with a problem to be solved, and no two problems are identical. One customer may want to know how to install MS Word, whereas another may want to know how to convert a PDF file into a word file. Thus there is a good deal of variety in the calls that they handle and in the problems that they solve. Some times they encounter problems requiring them to think on their feet. Thus the work involves sophisticated tasks, the successful performance at which obviously results in a lot of job satisfaction for the agents. It is of little surprise that agents in technical call centres report higher satisfaction than their counter-parts in non-technical call centres.
The above observations related to job satisfaction in technical call centres provide a good pointer to improving the job conditions in non technical call centres. The key solution for the job designers of non-technical call centres is to replicate directly or indirectly the job characteristics of technical call centres. First of all, the task monotony could be broken by alternating an agent frequently between call handling and desk jobs. Secondly, the number and duration of breaks can be made flexible; Within a certain total time that could be spent away from handling calls, an agent could be given a choice between taking a few long breaks and many short breaks.
New technologies, such as virtual agents, could be adopted to automate certain tasks currently handled by the agents. The above measures would certainly increase the costs of a call centre. But not adopting them would increase the costs more, though indirectly. If job monotony and cyber bullying go unchecked, attrition rates, already high, would increase further, leading to high costs of recruitment and training. New technologies would definitely reduce the need for old jobs, while at
Recent technology trends in call centre industry
Automatic speech recognition
Cloud Call Centre Technology
the same time necessitating new skills and new job design. Therefore the challenge for entrepreneurs in this sector is to introduce new technologies, redesign jobs and work conditions, while keeping the cost of operation under control, so that the industry sustains its competitive advantage, while continuing as an engine of economic transformation.
Noronha, Ernesto, D’Cruz, Premilla (2006), Organizing Call Centre Agents: Emerging Issues, Economic and Political Weekly, May 27, 2006, 2115-2121.
D’Cruz, Premilla, Noronha, Ernesto (2007), Technical Call Centres: Beyond ‘Electronic Sweatshops’ and ‘Assembly Lines in the Head’, Global Business Review, 8:1(2007), 53-67.
D’Cruz, Premilla, Noronha, Ernesto (2014) Interface Between Technology and Customer Cyberbullying: Evidence from India, Information and Organization: 24(3): 176-193, July 2014.