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What you need to know about BPOs

Raj Lalwani | December 14, 2005

Despite opposition from various quarters, the last few years have seen rapid growth in the Business Process Outsourcing industry. Dr Sarika Kulkarni, author, Business Process Outsourcing, is one of many who believe BPOs are here to stay.

Not just call centres

image Kulkarni's first grouse is that BPOs and call centres are spoken of in the same breath. "There is much more to BPOs than just call centres," she says. There are other types of BPOs -- like healthcare BPOs, transaction processing BPOs, human resource BPOs, media and entertainment BPOs and so on. The working conditions vastly differ in each one. As a BPO aspirant, it is important that you sit down and analyse the various types of jobs on offer. For example, at a healthcare BPO, a medical language specialist does the transcription. He listens to voice files that contain details about a particular patient and converts them into medical records.

Look before you leap

Today, a vast number of graduates, and even under-graduates, join the BPO industry because they are tempted by the big bucks. However, as different kinds of BPOs require different skills, it is important that aspirants carefully weigh their options and zero in on the kind best suited to them.

A call centre aspirant must be willing to work at night. An outgoing personality and a good command over English are the necessary prerequisites. Healthcare BPO professionals, however, need to work during the day. They are not required to speak much, but must be good in written English.

The future

It is no secret that the BPO industry in India has flourished because of US President George W Bush's immensely favourable outlook towards outsourcing. The fear is: Will the bubble burst when there is a change in power? Isn't this 'flourishing' industry dependent on US outsourcing policies?

"At the moment, it seems we are dependent on the outsourcing policies of the United States. But I'm sure their policy will remain favourable," says Kulkarni. "Years ago, Bush gambled in adopting a favourable outsourcing policy. Today, that decision is raking in the moolah for the US. It is able to use the abundant human resources available in countries like India and China and earn huge profits. Now that the experiment is a success, why would they want to revoke such a policy?"

India rules

There have been comparions between China's human resources and India's. There are also predictions that BPO salaries in India will continue to rise. Will this prove to be a blessing for China?

Kulkarni disagrees and cites a recent study by global management consultancy firm AT Kearney, which showed that India is the undisputed leader among all outsourcing units. These units were evaluated on the basis of financial structure, people skills and availability, and business environment.

India is not the best in any of the categories, per se. In fact, it ranks 23rd when it comes to business environment. But, when viewed in toto, the country leads in terms of the overall package offered.

Working conditions acceptable

Recent reports by global management consultancy firm AT Kearney notwithstanding, Kulkarni maintains the working conditions in BPOs are quite acceptable. "Let's not hide the fact that a majority of students who join BPOs and call centres are under-performers who have not done well in academics. Yet, when they work at a BPO, they pocket a lot of money in lieu of good communication skills. They are treated well and have all the required facilities at hand," she says.

According to Kulkarni, only those who cannot adjust to the gruelling schedules complain. Here, again, it is important to know what you are getting into. "Communication skills are important, but one needs more. An efficient BPO employee must train his psyche to adjust to the various changes he or she has to go through -- reversal of the body clock, changes in social life, accepting unfriendly calls and other tensions. The BPO industry is still in a foetal stage and it is important to research what you are getting into before you join," she adds.

The great Indian middle class v/s the great Indian BPO revolution

Speaking of BPOs, there are other matters of concern. The salaries begin at Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month and increase as an individual ascends the ladder. With a number of these individuals being undergraduates and in their teens, isn't it a case of too much, too soon?

Kulkarni seems to have a lot of faith in the Indian middle class value system. She believes the youth may spend their first few salaries unabashedly, but will soon assume a sense of responsibility. The BPOs are doing their bit by educating employees about various saving, insurance and investment options.

A majority of people believe BPOs will remain restricted to underperformers who have no other job opportunities. Kulkarni, however, says the scenario is changing. Various B-schools have expressed an interest in making their students go through the required training. As manpower at BPOs increases, the need for managers will naturally rise. As a result, MBA graduates may find their calling at BPO units.

The road ahead

"I would stick my neck out to say that, in a few years, the BPO industry will be to India what oil is to West Asia," says an optimistic Kulkarni.

While we wonder whether some of the optimism she exhibits may be a trifle misplaced, it cannot be denied that, for the moment, BPOs continue to be the flavour of the season.

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