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Shobana Jeyasingh: [h]Interland    
Delhi calling

It may look like a UK number, but do you really know where the person on the other end of the line is? Luke Harding visits a call centre in India where the staff take crash courses in Britishness

Luke Harding
Friday March 9, 2001
The Guardian


   
It is 6.30pm and in a smart open plan office in south Delhi, the air is humming with a thousand telephone calls. Sitting in a row of sound-muffling cubicles, a group of pleasant-looking young Indian graduates are talking into their designer headsets. Some are dressed in jeans; others in bright salwar kameez . Their customers, however, are rather a long way away, in a place where it is still lunchtime and probably cold.

They are in Sidcup, perhaps, or verdant East Cheam – dotted across a grey island nation that from here seems remote and eccentric. The customers have rung a number in the UK to check their mobile telephone bill, or to ask about a new product or service. They are, for the most part, spectacularly unaware that their inquiry has been routed thousands of miles away to an Indian call centre, which serves rotis in its upstairs canteen and has a good view from the roof terrace of a giant lotus temple.

Not, of course, that there is much to give the game away. The subterfuge is truly magnificent. Callers are greeted with a "good afternoon" when it is already evening in India and dark. Should the caller lob in a reference to David Beckham or the Queen Mother, Indian staff are able to give a suitable off-the-cuff reply. Nothing is left to chance.

This is Spectramind, one of India's newest and most sophisticated call centres: a place of soothing pastel colours, tasteful lighting and expensive green carpets. The entire four-storey building exudes the smell of fresh paint - and of colossal corporate self-confidence. Here, recruits receive a 20-hour crash course in British culture. They watch videos of soap operas, including The Bill, Emmerdale, Brookside, Coronation Street and EastEnders, to accustom them to regional accents. They are told who Robbie Williams is. They learn about Yorkshire pudding. And they are taught about Britain's unfailingly miserable climate.

Each computer screen shows Greenwich Mean Time and the temperature in the UK, in case a staff member feels the urge to reveal that India is enjoying yet another day of blue skies and sunny weather. "We find showing new staff videos of Yes, Prime Minister is particularly effective," says Raman Roy, Spectramind's sleek, pipe-smoking chief executive. "They get a two-hour seminar on the royal family. We download the British tabloids every morning from the web to see what our customers are reading. We make our new staff watch Premier League football games on TV. And we also explain about the weather, because British people refer to the subject so frequently. It is a science," he adds, proudly.

And so it is, so much so that Britain's 3,500 call centres are justly worried that their jobs will soon disappear entirely – as more and more firms relocate or "outsource" key elements of their businesses to India. This apprehension was confirmed by a report published last month. It said that the Indian call centres were superior to their British counterparts in every way. They were cheaper – costing only 35-40% as much. They had better technological facilities. They had smarter staff.

American Express and British Airways started the trend eight years ago, when they transferred their "captive" customer service empires to Delhi, and then Bombay. BA was attracted by India's seemingly unlimited pool of English-speaking graduates, 25% of whom fail to find jobs. Indian graduates required starting salaries of only £2,500, as opposed to £12,500. They were IT literate, and highly motivated. The savings were enormous.

Gradually, other British companies cottoned on. Last year, Harrods controversially shifted its store-card operation from Leeds to Delhi. It has been joined by Debenhams, Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and, fittingly, Monsoon. The insurers RSA and Axa Sun Life have recently moved elements of administration to Bangalore, India's IT capital.

Not surprisingly, British unions are starting to complain loudly. They object, in particular, to the fact that some Indian call centres encourage their staff to change their names to sound more, well, English. Thus Siddhartha might become Sid, or Gitanjali could be Hazel, not Gita. At Spectramind staff keep their original names, Roy explains: "It is not a disadvantage to be called Ramakrishna these days." (It was obviously merely a happy coincidence that his sari-clad secretary was called Sarah.)

It is no secret within the industry that "agents" are taught to minimise their Indian accents, to speak more slowly, and to watch the BBC news. "We don't try and teach our staff to speak with British accents. But after talking to British people they do start to sound like them," manager Mr Viswanathan admits. Even after intense training, though, some callers from Britain are impossible to under stand, it seems. "We borrow tapes from the British Council in Delhi. But even after listening to them there are about 20% of callers who don't make any sense at all," says Padmini Misra, vice-president (training).

That India has so many charming and intelligent English speakers is clearly one of the nicer legacies of colonialism – so we can hardly complain 50 years on that they are stealing our jobs. Most of Spectramind's new recruits have been educated at English-orientated schools. They spend Friday nights watching Goodness Gracious Me and repeats of Blackadder on Star TV, India's most contemporary channel. But watching Rowan Atkinson prance about in an Elizabethan ruff is no substitute for actually having visited the UK, which most of them have not done. This is where Misra's crash course comes in. "We have training modules on geography, history and the monarchy, and on Britain's social structure," she says. "We teach them about British food – Yorkshire puddings for one - which would not be familiar to a young Indian fellow here. We give them quizzes on Britain and allow them to surf the net. And we tell them about what high-street shops there are."

Misra also sheds light on why the old sit-com Yes, Prime Minister goes down so well among the staff – it's because the rococo bureaucracy of Whitehall corresponds so closely with India's own. Such are the sensitivities involved, however, that most Indian call firms refuse to discuss their methods. They also strive to conceal who their clients are – or what, exactly, they do for them. "We have to decline your request," the US finance group GE Capital sniffs, when I ask to have a look round its huge call centre in Gurgaon, on the road between Delhi and the historic town of Jaipur. "Why tell our competitors how we run and manage our business?" GE handles the store-card accounts of Harrods and other major British chains, such as Russell and Bromley. It has some 2.5m British customers but does not believe in the virtues of transparency.

"Clients don't always like the customer to know that any service from them to the customer has been outsourced," Matthew Vallance concedes. His firm, CustomerAsset, recently opened two new call centres in Bangalore and he predicts that more and more British firms will shift to the subcontinent. But it is not just the UK that is outsourcing to India: a huge amount of what is known as "remote processing" is now being done in India for the US market. While Tennessee slumbers, members of Spectramind's American team are busy. They are working on invoices that have been scanned and emailed to them from halfway across the world, or preparing to chase up students who have defaulted on debts of £10-£50.

The US-orientated staff are trained in the nuances of baseball in the same way that the British team watch The Bill in a shiny second-floor classroom decorated with photos of Tower Bridge and Prince Charles. Blue "Tennessee Titans" pennants fly above the American team's desks. "Geography is history. Distance is irrelevant. Where you are physically located is unimportant. I can log on anywhere in the world," Roy declares.

His firm is not deceiving the customer, merely providing a "global servicing resource", he explains. After a successful career at American Express and GE Capital, he founded Spectramind 11 months ago. The firm is now hiring 150 new graduates a month and receives 8,000 applications from a single advertisement in the Hindustan Times. It is already hunting for a second overflow office, as the number of employees shoots up from 400 to 2,000.

With the industry doubling in size every couple of months, India is well on the way to becoming the call centre capital of the world - with a turnover, analysts predict, of $3.7bn by 2008. In a luxuriantly illuminated waiting room decorated with a photo of a giant eagle ("Leaders are like Eagles. You only find one of them at a time") a group of applicants is comparing notes after a fourth gruelling interview.

"I've already written three exams. I'm an honours engineering graduate," whispers one young male applicant who is wearing a tie. He and his fellow candidates are in their early 20s. They are bright, middle class and tidily presented. They are, in short, the kind of people who wouldn't be seen dead in a UK call centre – unless the bailiffs were knocking at the door or the student loan had to be paid off urgently.

On the floor below, the British desk, which starts work at 6.30pm (Indian standard time), is still greeting callers with a "good afternoon". The shift finishes at 2.30am, just as Britain is washing up or settling down on the sofa to watch the telly. The Indian graduates are then ferried home in luxury Toyota Qualises, through still-warm streets full of somnolent cows, yapping pye-dogs and snoring rickshaw drivers. We are a world away from Sidcup. The darkness is only broken by the flood-lit lotus temple, serene and milky white in the distance.


Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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