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Smita Tripathi, Jai Arjun Singh and Soumik Sen |
December 27, 2003
A Business Standard undercover team finds out how the business process outsourcing industry goes about hiring in the hundreds.
India was once famous for being the land of unemployed graduates.
You grabbed that university degree and went on a futile quest for a job. And, let's face it, it was tough getting one without a word in the right ear or the gentle pulling of a few strings.
For today's college graduates, though, the employment scenario has altered dramatically. The BPO industry has been hoovering up freshers from college and it has an insatiable appetite for more.
Currently, some 170,000 people work in the BPO industry and that's forecast to climb to 1.1 million by 2008. To meet that target, the industry must hire at the staggering rate of 500 people a day.
Last week half-a-dozen BPO companies published ads in a bid to catch the eye of young talent. The right candidates could just turn up for walk-in interviews at any time of the day.
If you were tied up and couldn't get there that day, you could e-mail your bio-data and arrange a meeting at another time that suited you.
Business Standard sent three of its younger correspondents to check out the job market. Their findings:
Power dressing is clearly not the order of the day for job-hunters in the BPO world. That's immediately obvious as I gaze at the 40 other people who've turned up for the walk-in interview in a middle-class Delhi suburb.
Tank tops, jeans and leather jackets are the favoured garb. Interestingly, there are no salwar kameezes. And sarees--well, forget them.
I'm a newcomer at this game but everyone else seems to be a veteran (that means between three to six months experience). They're gathered in small knots swapping gossip. Cups of tea are doing the rounds and most people seem to be discussing why they had quit -- or wanted to quit -- their most recent job.
Hiring young recruits has been turned into an assembly-line affair in the BPO industry. The moment I handed in my CV I was called for the first interview. The first question was whether I was comfortable working night shifts. I immediately said yes.
"Which call centre would you like to work for?" he asked. I wanted to ask whether I had a choice but settled for a more diplomatic "Where will you send me?"
"The BPO industry is like the hotel industry," he replied. "You can work for a dhaba or for a five-star hotel. They both serve food. But we recruit for the five stars. Would you like to work with them?" he asked.
The answer to that seemed fairly obvious. So I was given two quick tests -- one for analytical ability and the other for maths. I was also asked for a 150-word essay on any topic under the sun. My subject was a deeply intellectual one called "The three puppies"
After the test I was given a detailed form that asked about my education and family background. I was puzzled by one part that inquired about relatives in the United States and their phone numbers. This, I discovered later is to prevent people calling relatives in America.
Outside, a mini-party was underway. Tea was being poured liberally. I struck up a conversation with an industry veteran (she must have been all of 22) who had quit her last job after being refused two-weeks leave. "I had a genuine reason, yaar," she insisted.
The youngsters who man the phone lines and handle the back office work in the BPO industry seemed to change jobs almost as often as they changed shirts. Another young woman had quit after a fight with her boss.
A third woman had only come along to keep a friend company. She didn't want to change jobs but I quickly discovered there was a not-so-professional reason for that. The main attraction in her current job seemed to be that the CEO was a hunk.
"You just have to see him to believe it. He is gorgeous," she gushed. She suggested that I should also apply to her company.
"The job process is simpler so it is easier to learn and, of course, the CEO visits our floor daily."
The BPO industry has become a magnet for young people who've finished college. There were small towners who wanted to move to the big city and this was a good stopgap option.
Some felt the money was good and it was fun working with other young people. And, of course, some didn't want to study further and this was one of the best paying options.
In between all this I had done one more round of tests. Nine of us sat in a semi-circle around the HR manager of a leading call centre company. I naively assumed that I was about to participate in a group discussion.
Instead, the HR manager told us the most important thing was pronunciation and grammar. So each person was asked to relate the story of a Hindi film. That seemed easy enough but it obviously wasn't for some people.
One person said that "the Shah Rukh Khan fell in love with the Kajol". Another insisted it was, "all about felling in love". Finally, three people were selected, including yours truly.
Finally, came a grammar test which I sailed through--presumably with flying colours.
It was late evening by the time I made it to the final interview.
The HR manager smelt a rat and asked why I wanted to work in a call centre after graduating from Shri Ram College of Commerce. "Why don't you go for an MBA or a CA?" she asked.
I told her a yarn about wanting to work in the industry of the year.
Industry of the year it may be but the HR manager didn't try to paint a rosy portrait.
"It can be very frustrating if for eight hours everyday, all you have to do is to answer the queries of irate customers. Continuing to be polite while the person on the other end may become abusive is pretty difficult," she warned.
Why was she trying to dissuade me from taking the job? Apparently, it would reflect poorly on her if I left after a month.
Since I was a newcomer and knew absolutely nothing about the call centre industry (or so she thought), she suggested I think over it and collect my offer letter the next day.
That seemed fine and my only question was about the salary. "You'll get Rs 9,000 gross along with Rs 3,000 as incentive and Rs 2,000 as loyalty bonus," she told me. "So the CTC (cost to company) would come to around Rs 14,000," I said. "Yes", she smiled "I am glad you know what CTC means."
Oops! Even the perfect murderer sometimes leaves behind a clue. I guess I gave away a hint that I wasn't as wet behind the ears as I seemed.
-- By Smita Tripathi
It's 10.00 a.m. on a chilly Sunday morning and I'm standing outside a nondescript DDA flat in south Delhi. There's no nameboard, but when I push open the front door, there's a guard who tells me to sign in the register and hand over two copies of my resume.
About 30 youngsters are already hanging about in the makeshift reception room. There's no sign yet of the interviewer who should have been here an hour ago.
For the interview I've basically wiped three years off my resume. I'm a 23-year-old again and I've just completed my post-graduation. My name is Joy Arjun (which I almost forgot when signing the register).
Sitting next to me is Hiren, a veteran of the game. He's been working at a call centre for the last three months but is looking out for something more lucrative. "There are always better options available in this industry, and it makes sense to keep looking," he says cheerfully.
Hiren, incidentally, will probably be joining ICICI Bank in the near future. But he offers me the benefit of his three-month experience: if I am thinking about call centres as a long-term option, I should look at technical care. That's better than customer care because there's more value addition.
It's 11.00 am when the star of the show, the HR manager, makes his appearance. He sits down and launches immediately into a glib, pre-rehearsed speech.
During World War I the British Army put up posters of Lord Kitchener proclaiming that, "Your country needs you". The HR manager today takes a slightly different approach to recruitment.
For the next 20 minutes he tells us a score of reasons why we shouldn't go anywhere near a call centre. He starts by telling us that "the position is basically that of a glorified telephone operator".
He then warns us that there will--among other things--be "a fair quota of racial abuse from irate customers which you'll have to tolerate smilingly because you represent the company".
Mr HR's speech omits nothing, painting a dark picture of late nights spent doing nothing but answering calls, with one 30-minute and two 15-minute breaks. There will be two days off a week but it won't necessarily be a Saturday and Sunday. Your social life will probably disappear, he says pleasantly.
Furthermore, says Mr HR, anyone selected will have to undergo a three-month accent-training course, and may be unceremoniously dumped after that. He also mentions that the BPO industry is people intensive so "most of you will probably take a very long time to move to a more prestigious position".
"Always remember," he adds cryptically, "that you will have to be better than you are because there are thousands of people out there who are better than you are."
This bad-cop routine is presumably meant to sift out waverers and it works; by the end of the speech the group's head count is down by three.
One candidate departs after being told that the company won't give exam leave. Another scuttles off after discovering that there won't be a shuttle service for people from Ghaziabad and Faridabad.
The first requirement in a call centre is people who can speak English with reasonable clarity. So, the first test--not an insurmountable one--consists of getting each person to talk.
"Your pronunciation of course needs to be word-perfect," says Mr HR solemnly (clearly, his doesn't need to be).
"So the first round will simply require each of you to introduce yourself and tell me something about your educational background. I need to assess your verbal abilities."
Clearly, the English-speaking abilities of the candidates in the room are of differing levels. "Sir, myself Deepak..." and "I would surely be an asset..." says one candidate.
Twelve candidates including Joy Arjun make it to the next round. In the best "no hard feelings" style he tells the dejected lot shuffling out that they shouldn't take the rejection personally—"it doesn't reflect on your competence, it just means that you don't fit our requirements."
One departing candidate wants his CV back, for another interview today.
The next round is really more of the same, only a little longer. This time, we are asked general questions about our family background and interests. One girl, however, fails this simple test.
Confronted with "why do you want to join a call centre" she replies blithely that she likes talking on the phone with friends and hence would be suited to the job. "You can't treat this as a picnic," says the irate HR man.
When asked the same question I gush like a beauty queen talking about Mother Teresa. " I'm interested in the working environments of international companies. It would make me feel like I'm contributing to the global community." Five people are shortlisted for the next round and Joy Arjun is one of them.
But I develop cold feet when told that I'll have to stick around for another four to five hours for written tests. I decide I've done enough cloak-and-dagger stuff for one day.
Later, returning from a lunch appointment to my car, where I've left my cellphone, I find 25 missed calls on it. They weren't kidding when they said it was a people-intensive industry.
-- By Jai Arjun Singh
It wasn't the best fake identity I could have chosen but it seemed to work. The interviewer didn't even raise an eyebrow when I said I was a musician. "What instrument do you play?" was her only question.
For a moment I was the one caught by surprise and a bizarre thought crossed my head. Maybe she was recruiting for an offshore vocals division that would be a cheap replacement to Broadway's crooners.
Sadly, that wasn't on her mind. As she glanced through my fake resume her only query was whether this was my first call centre interview. "Absolutely". I replied honestly. "Why," she continued, "did you choose us over the other ads that came out this week?" I hesitated briefly but then opted for the truth. "South Extension was the closest to home."
It seemed to satisfy her. She asked a few desultory questions about my past jobs and casually reminded me that I would be working night shifts. A few minutes later she walked out of the room and returned with a pre-printed congratulatory note on a cheap piece of paper which said that I had made it to Round Two.
This was the anti-climactic end to my foray into the BPO world which had begun a few hours ago. As I came through the door of the inconspicuous-looking flat a burly-looking youngster was talking into a mobile phone.
For a few seconds he turned from his phone to the security guard. "Will it take time?" he inquired.
The security guard's answer seemed to satisfy the half-hearted job applicant. He went back to the phone and asked whether his friends would still be at Ebony (the department store across the road) while he did the interview.
Only about six people had turned up for the interview. I looked around and tried to imagine my fellow job-seekers handling complaints from credit card holders in Liverpool or selling insurance policies to single mothers in Seattle.
Ramesh, sitting next to me, was obviously an industry veteran. I introduced myself and nervously asked what the interviewers would ask.
Ramesh, reassured me ,"Oh don't you worry. They'll ask you to describe yourself, whether you can do night shifts and why you want to join."
Trying to look nervous was probably unnecessary. Around me everyone seemed to be calm and, basically, a bit bored. One or two had rolled up their resumes and it was clear that they weren't suffering from pre-interview blues.
My brush with the BPO industry was shorter than expected. I had the congratulatory note in hand and the interviewer came out to tell me what would happen next. "We are agents for leading call centres, and they will be here on Monday at 1 pm."
"They will make you sit through a simple grammar test, which anybody can pass, and will pay you a net of Rs 8,000 per month plus perks such as pick-up and drop and food," she added.
That's it? I wondered as I walked out clutching the call for the next interview. Call centre jobs, for anyone who can speak English, are there for the asking.
As I left, the burly youngster was speaking to another friend and asking whether another place where interviews were taking place was serving samosas and coffee.
-- By Soumik Sen