June 10, 2005
Call centers: The bane of an entire generation in India?
Last week, there was a report about employees at call centers in India quitting, unable to handle the stress of constantly being at the receiving end of many abusive customers. These customers hurl sexist and racist abuses, peeved at the fact that an Indian was attending to them, when they wanted one of their own kind to. This obviously stems from the fact that off-shoring and outsourcing to India means that one of their own kind loses a job. As a McKinsey study pointed out, outsourcing isn't restricted to information technology alone. Perhaps these callers want to be transferred to Canadians instead.
In any case, back to what I started off about. Simon Caulkin examines the possible reasons for the way the customers behaved. He points out that when the customer calls with a problem, he/she wants it to be fixed. But the way call centers, especially overseas ones, operate, the agents have little control and influence over the correct solution for the customer's problem.
I've maintained for a few years now, although only in my thoughts, that the flourishing call center industry in India will ultimately be responsible for brainwashing an entire generation (or perhaps less than a generation) of Indians in the age group 20-30. Most of these are fresh out of college and are absolutely chuffed about the fact that if they opt to work for a call center, they could end up earning nearly, or sometimes more than, half of what their parents earn. Since they now have the financial independence, it leads to splurging on food, cars, bikes, movies, entertainment, electronics, booze etc. They get added to the category of those with a significant disposable income. They also get the thrill of working in a corporate environment, much unlike what they've been through over the past 20 odd years. There is a freedom, thrill and ecstasy associated with being employed which is undescribable.
They typically end up working night shifts, if their employer handles US clients. If the customers are in Europe or other parts of Asia, their work shift may be a little saner. Now, having worked all these night shifts, they find that they're sleeping through a significant portion of the day. They hardly get to enjoy the company of their parents, siblings, relatives and friends, who don't work at call centers. But there is still an urge to socialize with the junta. Hence sleep is given a go by. They could be getting home around 6 am, possibly accompanied by the milkman and newspaper boy. Since they want to hang around with people, they only get say six hours of sleep. Six hours of sleep a day wont affect things over a week. Over a month, yes. Over a quarter, certainly. Over a year, the effects now become long term.
So on normal days, even at the cost of missing out on sleep, these chaps manage to squeeze out time for family & friends. The crunch comes when they end up working on national, religious and cultural holidays. While their near and dear, and indeed everyone on the road, is bursting crackers on Deepavali or watching a Vijaykanth starrer being shown on TV as a symbol of patriotism on Republic Day, they trudge in to work, possibly only to hear more abuses thrown at them. Instead, those servicing say the UK celebrate the likes of Easter Monday & Boxing Day while those handling US calls celebrate Labor Day & Memorial Day.
The other problem the burgeoning call center industry poses is the fact that since these people fresh out of college are earning more than a few lakhs per year, they lose the will and gumption to study further and do a post-graduation, and perhaps a PhD. After all, why would you want to miss out on a salary of around 2.5 lakhs and at the same time pay an identical amount to continue their education. As a result, the number of graduates who do not bother to further their education keeps increasing. Overall, this obviously brings down the standard of the products and services rendered by the industry. These people think that they can always catch up on their education later in life, perhaps when they're nearing 30. Although my circumstances were different, I'm doing precisely this. I can assure you that it isn't exactly stress-free to simultaneously balance family, work and studies.
It is also a well known fact that the attrition rate in call centers, and in the IT/ITES/BPO industry in general, is very high. After working in the organization for perhaps a year, they hop jobs, with the primary objective being more money. Domain expertise goes for a toss. Three years later, they already have five employers mentioned in their resume. Five years later, they've had enough of the industry and the enormous stress they've been placed under. They now find that there is absolutely no one willing to hire them. They have not upgraded their skills. The rest of the industry has perhaps moved on to technologies and processes radically different from what they were exposed to before they put the headphone & microphone on. They wont exactly be unemployed. But they end up being underemployed.
By now, the social fabric of this generation has almost been torn apart. They perhaps have lost touch with their relatives and friends. Any amount of correspondence via email is no substitute to actually meeting up and spending quality time with acquaintances. The irony is that this 'Lost Generation' is affluent enough to not require any help from India's creaking social sector. Yet, society will need to take responsibility for what they missed out.
So what is the solution? The most radical one would be to stop setting up any more call centers. That isnt going to happen for a while, not when there're billions of dollars at stake. What if Indian companies started off-shoring the call center portion of their business to counterparts (or subsidiaries) in other countries? Sacrifice a generation elsewhere to save ours? Yes, why not?!