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A Crash Course on Irate Calls

Times Staff Writer

In a sleek new office building, two dozen young Indians are studying the customs of a place none of them has ever seen. One by one, the students present their conclusions about this fabled land.

“Americans eat a lot of junk food. Table manners are very casual,” says Ritu Khanna.

“People are quite self-centered. The average American has 13 credit cards,” says Nerissa Dcosta.

“Seventy-six percent of the people mistrust the government. In the near future, this figure is expected to go up to 100%,” says Sunny Trama.

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The Indians, who range in age from 20 to 27, have been hired to take calls from cranky or distraught Americans whose computers have gone haywire. To do this, they need to communicate in a language that is familiar but a culture that is foreign.

“We’re not saying India is better or America is better,” says their trainer, Alefiya Rangwala. “We just want to be culturally sensitive so there’s no disconnect when someone phones for tech support.”

Call centers took root here during the 2001 recession, when U.S. companies were struggling to control expenses. By firing American customer service workers and hiring Indians, the firms slashed their labor costs by 75%.

At first, training was simple. The centers gave employees names that were acceptable to American ears, with Arjun becoming Aaron and Sangita becoming Susan. The new hires were instructed to watch “Friends” and “Ally McBeal” to get an idea of American folkways.

But whether Aaron and Susan were repairing computers, selling long-distance service or fulfilling orders for diet tapes, problems immediately cropped up. The American callers often wanted a better deal or an impossibly swift resolution, and were aggressive and sometimes abrasive about saying so.

The Indians responded according to their own deepest natures: They were silent when they didn’t understand, and they often committed to more than their employers could deliver. They would tell the Americans that someone would get back to them tomorrow to check on their problems, and no one would.

Customer satisfaction plummeted. The U.S. clients grew alarmed. Some even returned their business to U.S. call centers.

Realizing that a new multibillion-dollar industry with 150,000 employees was at risk, Indian call centers have recently embarked on much more comprehensive training. New hires are taught how to express empathy, strategies to successfully open and close conversations, and above all how to be assertive, however unnatural it might feel.

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“We like to please,” says Aparajita Ajit, whose title is “head of talent transformation” for the call-center firm Mphasis. “It’s very difficult for us to say no.”

Khanna, Dcosta, Trama and their new colleagues work for Sutherland Global Services, a New York firm that is one of the larger outsourcing companies here. They’ve been put through a three-week training session where they research hot-button issues, pretend they are American anchors reporting the latest news, and imitate celebrities. (“I am Michael Jackson,” began Smitha Shetty’s presentation. “I am innocent in this child molestation case.... ")

“What they know about Americans is just the tip of the iceberg,” says the teacher, Rangwala. “Violence and sex, this is not what America is about. Or it’s not the only thing America is about.”

To underline this point, she shows movies in class. Today it’s “Catch Me If You Can,” the Steven Spielberg film about a real-life con man, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. She stops the film every 30 seconds to pepper the students with questions.

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DiCaprio’s mother has run off, leaving him and his father to prepare their own meals. “What is he making?” asks Rangwala. “Pancakes!” shout the students.

“What is today?”

“His 16th birthday!”

“What does his father give him?”

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“A checkbook!”

“What’s happening?”

“A divorce!”

A checking account in America is like a savings account in India, where the American version of a savings account is known as a fixed deposit. Divorce may be common in America but, as the movie shows, it’s still painful. And pancakes are eaten at any hour of the day.

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These small bits of information may come in handy. Just as DiCaprio’s character figures out how to impersonate a doctor and an airline pilot, these students are learning to fake being American.

The goal of computer help desks like Sutherland’s is to have the caller do as much of the work as possible himself, and to keep him on the phone the shortest amount of time possible -- without failing to help him.

If the Indian rep has no idea what the American customer means when he asks, “What’s a ballpark figure for getting my system upgraded?” a 15-minute call might stretch to half an hour. Long calls can choke the system, given that one of Sutherland’s clients, a major U.S. computer manufacturer, gets 250,000 service calls a month.

This is the students’ last day of cultural and voice training. Rangwala warns them that at least half a dozen are still speaking incomprehensibly and might wash out.

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As they slip away one by one to make a short recording that will test their pronunciation skills, K.S. Kumar, Sutherland’s director of operations for India, gives a little graduation speech.

“You’re shortchanging yourself if you don’t stick with this,” he advises.

It would certainly help Kumar if they remained with Sutherland. While there are many applicants for call-center jobs, those who actually get hired tend not to stick around. Sutherland’s annual attrition rate is 40%. Some of its competitors turn over personnel completely during the course of a year.

In part, it’s the hours. Tomorrow night, as the students begin classes in how to debug a computer, they’ll get their first taste of the night shift. By the time they move across the hall to the call center itself, they’ll be starting as late as 2 a.m. -- early afternoon in Los Angeles.

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But miserable hours aren’t the only reason for quitting. Talk to former employees of centers in Bombay and Bangalore and it’s clear that the industry has had a lot of growing problems. Many Indians didn’t adapt well to the high-tech, high-stress jobs.

“I worked in a modern-day sweatshop,” says Amith Shetty, 26. “There was air-conditioning, comfortable seats, good food, but the work was tough and the targets unrealistic. To cope, I started smoking more and drinking more.”

Shetty (no relation to Sutherland trainee Smitha Shetty) began working in a call center for the same reason as many young people: He was at loose ends for a few months, waiting to go back to school to get another degree.

The call center was employed by a U.S. client that sold thousands of products through infomercials -- the Perfect Pancake, Ronco Rotisseries, Q-Ray Ionized Bracelets. The service reps never saw the products, but they knew when one was on TV.

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“There would be 200 reps logged in, and 150 of them would be selling a Perfect Pancake,” Shetty says. “I never really understood what the Perfect Pancake was.”

Customers’ tones differed by product. Men who called to order “Girls Gone Wild” -- a series of tapes devoted to young women who doff their shirts for the camera -- would make grunting noises.

Indians who did outbound telemarketing tended to have a particularly difficult time. “We were told the Americans were going to be angry,” says Aarti Angelo, 24, who sold long-distance plans for AT&T.; “Some would take you to the end and then hang up. Sometimes, you would break down.”

That’s when things could get really ugly. “There are some reps who would yell back,” remembers Dexter Fernandes, Angelo’s friend and former colleague. “Or they would say, ‘I’m from the FBI; you have to take this plan.’ ”

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Fernandes was allowed to keep his real name, because it sounded American. Angelo became Lisa James. Both were instructed to identify themselves as students in Salt Lake City.

Other call centers tried to keep the whole thing vague. Shetty, who took his phone name, Andrew, from a favorite Erich Segal novel, told customers he wasn’t allowed to specify his whereabouts.

Some figured it out anyway. “They became slower, patronizing,” Shetty says. “They’d say, ‘My name is John. That’s J.O.H.N.’ ” After Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans calling to order tapes and bracelets assumed the Indians were Arabs, providing a new impetus for unpleasantness.

Not all the callers were coarse or abusive. But if you’re answering 100 calls a day and five to 10 of them are obnoxious, it becomes wearying.

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“Americans always feel like they’re being cheated. They want more for less. And they’re not very patient,” says Shetty, who now works in a bank.

The starting pay in call centers is about $350 a month, roughly equivalent in spending power to 10 times that in the U.S. But that relative fortune often creates its own problems.

“Call centers have put money into hands that were too young to handle it,” says Angelo, who is studying to become a social worker. “It’s caused a lot of degradation of values. People spent the money as fast as it came in, in pubs or on grass.”

Angelo was earning more than her mother, who had been a teacher for 27 years. When that happens, she says, “the parents lose control. I don’t think the centers should hire anyone who hasn’t finished their studies.”

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One reason why so many employees like Angelo, Fernandes and Shetty have been quitting is that there’s nowhere to move up.

To get a more stable workforce, the call centers know they have to expand their range.

“Don’t expect us to just sit here and take people’s lousy work and leave the creative work to the U.S.,” says Mphasis Vice Chairman Jeroen Tas. “We have a lot of well-educated, smart, ambitious, eager people here, and they all want to move up.”

The creative work that Tas wants is now being done in the U.S. by 350,000 people at independent call centers and another 2.5 million employed by in-house operations.

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These folks resolve complaints and sell things. Sometimes they do both at once, recommending an improved (and more expensive) financial or telephone service than the one the customer is upset about. It’s called up-selling or cross-selling, and it is one of the holy grails of marketing.

Mphasis, based in Bangalore, has started doing collection work, a job that is considered highly creative.

Originally, the ever-agreeable Indian agents had a hard time getting people to pay bills that were six months overdue. Too often, says trainer Deepa Nagraj, the calls would go like this:

“Hi,” the Indian would say. “I’d like to set up a payment to get your account current. Can I help you do that?”

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“No,” the American responds.

“OK, let me know if you change your mind,” the Indian says and hangs up.

Now, says Nagraj, the agents take no excuses.

Like Sutherland, Mphasis is basing a lot of its hopes on training. Indraniel Ghosh, an Mphasis trainer, gives refresher courses to reps who handle customer-service accounts for a big credit card company.

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One rep says he recently was helping a customer change his card data because his wife left him. When the rep expressed sympathy, the man cut him short, saying he hadn’t really liked his wife.

“In case you empathize and then you see they don’t want your empathy, move on,” Ghosh advises. “This is someone from another culture. That increases the complexity tenfold.”


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