The Speedup
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My Summer at an Indian Call Center

Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you're calling from.

When I first decided to apply for a call-center job, I headed to Gurgaon, a commercial suburb of Delhi. Gurgaon was built 30 years ago by a corporation, for corporations. It was fallow farmland until 1979, when DLF, India's biggest developer, began buying up property. Gurgaon is a non-city. In my time there, I saw no sidewalks, convenience stores, or public parks—only stray cows foraging in the sun-baked dirt between office towers.

A makeshift market in Gurgaon.A makeshift market in Gurgaon.I unfolded a scrap of paper, damp with sweat, on which I'd written the address of IBM's outsourcing headquarters: DLF Tower, DLF Cyber City, Phase II, Gurgaon. With high attrition rates, big BPOs are always hiring [PDF]. Anyone can walk in and arrange for a job interview. Mine did not go as planned.

"You've completed a four-year university?" the recruiter asked, pen poised above my résumé.

"Yes," I said.

"And your stream?"

"Pardon?"

She sighed. "What did you study?"

"Religion," I said. "Well—liberal arts."

She made a face, scribbling something.

"What does your father do?" she asked.

"He's a doctor."

"And your mother is a housewife?"

"No, a doctor also."

"A doctor also! Why didn't you go in for that line?"

"I...I didn't want to," I said.

"You didn't want to?" She could no longer hide her exasperation.

"These things are different in America," I said feebly.

She stood and offered her hand. "We'll let you know if anything opens up."

In Delhi the next day, I passed a storefront banner: "Walk-In for Instant BPO Spot Offers—No Money, No Catch!" I walked in. The power was out. A young recruiter, sitting behind a desk illuminated by candles, spoke rapidly in a Monty Python-esque caricature of American twang.

"If I give you a topic," she asked, "can you speak on it for upwards of 30 seconds? Your topic is: hometown."

I began spewing facts about New York—"The street vendors sell hot dogs. There is a street called Madison Avenue"—until she asked me to stop.

"Fine, Andrew. Actually, we were not listening for content primarily as much as your voice tone and voice confidence and communications skills, which in fact I am happy to report is all excellent, so I am recommending you for top marks. Congratulations." I knew she was just following the script, but I couldn't help feeling a swell of pride. "Which means you are selected for our exclusive BPO job search course this Sunday. Which means all I'd need from you now are 500 rupees."

I forked over the 500 rupees, which was nearly a week's pay for the average Indian worker—but which was, on the other hand, $11.

The "skills course" consisted of a woman reading from a photocopied pamphlet while 100 of us took notes. "What is call center to you?" she bellowed. Without waiting for a response, she intoned the correct answer. "Call center is a place where"—she motioned for us to transcribe—"we render the services to the customers and"—pause, more scribbling—"queries are made out by customer-care executive."

Over the next five hours, we sat stiffly while she recited the entire pamphlet, listing the "elements of voice modulation," what to wear to a job interview, and the types of customers we might encounter.

"Out there it's India, man," said one coworker, gesturing at a goat urinating in the street. "We go outside, and when we go back in, we bring India in with us."

"First is your eccentric!" she yelled.

"Second is your arrogant!

"Third is your bumpkin!

"Fourth is your quarrelsome!

"Fifth is your prudent!

"Sixth is your assertive!

"And seventh is your sweet-spoken!

"Now, any questions?"

"Ma'am," said a young man in front, "you instructed us that our necktie should reach halfway down the belt buckle?"

"Yes?"

"Ma'am, I don't have any necktie. In India we don't wear neckties."

"That's true," she said. "Other questions?"
 

Using my newly honed communication skills, I landed my job at Delhi Call Centre. The next day, the company cab brought us to Okhla, a muddy industrial zone on the banks of the Yamuna River, stopping at an unmarked iron gate in front of a chalky concrete bunker. We walked up stairs stained red by paan spit, under a door lintel decorated with a lucky swastika, and into a conference room that smelled of disinfectant. As we waited, I took notes: almost as many women as men, mostly middle-class and in their twenties [PDF]. Had I been Indian, I would have fit right in. As it was, my tawny hair and near-albinic skin made me a spectacle.

"What's he doing?" a girl behind me whispered in Hindi.

"He's writing!" her friend answered.

"Writing what?"

"I don't know, ask him!"

TKGurgaon, an epicenter of the BPO industry, was effectively built by corporations, for corporations. After an hour of waiting, our trainer entered. Lekha was tall and rail thin, with big doll eyes. Her accent was what BPO higher-ups would call "perfectly neutral"—her vowels soft and long, her Rs a benign compromise between flipped and rolled. "Training takes three weeks," she told us. "It's combined accent and culture training; we'll assume that you come to us with the accent part pretty well taken care of." In a playfully arch tone, she rattled off the rules: no mobile phones, eating, or drinking. And she would charge us a rupee, she teased, for every non-English word she heard in the classroom. "Any questions so far?"

"When do we get paid?" asked a young man wearing a Nike cap, yellow-tinted sunglasses, and carefully crafted facial stubble. In New York, I would have pegged him as a party promoter from Long Island City.

"Very funny," Lekha said. "You'll be paid for your time, including this training, but only after you've stayed two months. You know the drill: We wouldn't want people taking off as soon as training is over."

During our first cigarette break, Mr. Long Island City revealed that, indeed, his plan was to do precisely that—he'd already gone through this routine at some 15 BPOs around Delhi. "Who needs to stay for the actual work? Plus," he added, flashing a salacious smile, "that way you meet more girls."

After the break, we toured the empty office—the agents weren't due in until later. The computer terminals were of a clunky premillennial vintage. DCC, Lekha admitted, was not "one of your Dells or IBMs with fancy workstations and a McDonald's in our cafeteria." This reminded her of another rule: "No leaving the premises during work. You can smoke out front, but don't leave the gates."

On our next smoke break, I asked Mr. Long Island City if he found this rule strange. "No, it's just for safety types," he said. "Especially for the girls. Who knows what could happen to a girl on her own?" Another classmate had his own theory. "Out there it's India, man," he said, gesturing through the gate to where a goat was urinating in the street. "We go outside, and when we go back in, we bring India in with us."

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