Inside India #43: “Hello, my name is Dave” – India’s call centre phenomenon

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In 1998, in a small office in Delhi, a truly momentous event took place, though no one knew it at the time. An Indian entrepreneur named Pramod Bhasin invited his eighteen employees to begin taking calls on behalf of an American corporation located on the far side of the world.

India’s first modern call centre was up and running.

Picture credit: Employees operate the telephones at the Touch Solutions Ltd call centre. ©ILO/Benoit Marquet. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 IGO License.

Bhasin could not have envisaged that within a decade, hundreds of other entrepreneurs would follow in his wake, employing hordes of eager young Indians, and making India the call centre capital of the world.

This bonanza could not have been possible without a vast, English-speaking local workforce, and a low-cost telecoms infrastructure that allowed Indian companies to price out call centre operations in western nations. The economics of moving to the subcontinent made sense, outweighing concerns about accents, the infamous Indian approach to bureaucracy, and an untested workforce.

The industry saw immediate and explosive growth – over 50% per annum, year on year – some of it fuelled by an economic slowdown in the west which only encouraged more companies to cut costs by shifting back office operations overseas.

By 2015, there were more than 350,000 call centre workers in India, making it one of the most lucrative sectors in the New India economy. Blue chip companies from around the world transferred call centre ops to India. American Express, British Airways, Axa Sun Life, Top Shop, even Harrods. And why not? With starting salaries at a fifth of their British call-centre counterparts, the savings for these organisations were more than significant – they were irresistible. 

Call centre owners left nothing to chance.

Extravagant offices and inviting working environments – to levels previously unseen in India – attracted the best young workers – largely under the age of thirty, unmarried, and college-educated, both male and female. Late night buses were laid on for those working the graveyard shift. Salaries were five times greater than average. For young men on the make this sort of relative wealth made them highly sought after prospective sons-in-law.

For those serving British markets, a training regimen of British TV (e.g. soap operas such as Coronation Street and EastEnders) was imposed, aiming to familiarise workers with regional accents. Call centre operators were expected to take crash courses in British culture, celebrities, the royal family, cuisine, and how to maintain endless discussions about the weather. Local newspapers became essential reading. Many were asked to adopt western names while calling (though, in time, this strategy soured, and was later dropped), and to undergo accent neutralisation training.

Not everything went smoothly.

In many western countries, a backlash followed, initially, from workers’ unions – India’s gain was the western worker’s loss. Complaints began to flow in from customers, too – accents they couldn’t follow, the length of time it took to get someone on the line, shoddy follow-up.

And for the call centre workers themselves, the relentless grind, unsociable hours, and high expectations took their toll. Burnout led to high churn rates. Rampant consumerism saw pay packets squandered. Isolation led to mental health issues. Drug abuse became a problem.

In recent years, these failings have seen the meteoric rise of rivals in China, Eastern Europe, and, most notably, the Philippines, which, according to some, is now the world leader in call-centre services.

The response of Indian companies has been to aim higher, to evolve from just offering voice services to securing lucrative BPO – or Business Process Operations – work from their overseas clients. These more complex “non-voice” services include such offerings as running recruitment services or providing outsourced legal advice. Advanced data analysis services are another key battleground, with western retailers, in particular, keen to use Indian companies to sift through mountains of customer data in order to seek insights into their customer base.

Many Indian companies have also decided to fight their rivals the old-fashioned way – on the ground. Opting to open their own operations in rival countries, such as the Philippines, they aim to secure their future revenue streams by a combination of hard-won expertise combined with their rivals’ local assets.

Who will win the call centre war? Only time will tell.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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