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Mock-Calling – Ironies of Outsourcing and the Aspirations of an Individual

Posted by Sreedeep at Aug 06, 2015 09:25 AM |
This post by Sreedeep is part of the 'Studying Internets in India' series. He is an independent photographer and a Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi. In this essay, Sreedeep explores the anxieties and ironies of the unprecedented IT/BPO boom in India through the perspective and experiences of a new entrant in the industry, a decade ago. The narrative tries to capture some of the radical hedonistic consequences of the IT-burst on our lifestyles, imagination and aspirations delineated and fraught with layers of conscious deception and prolonged probation.
Mock-Calling – Ironies of Outsourcing and the Aspirations of an Individual

Convergys Building, Delhi. Photograph by the author.

 

best start (the advertisement)

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In the darkest hours of night, they remain awake serving some other continent across the oceans.
The sparkling exterior complements the sleeplessness.

Colorful half-pagers listing job openings in dedicated sections of dailies for the ‘educated’ and ‘experienced’ have been common in post liberalized India. When the eyes cruise through the various logos and offerings of the MNCs in these over populated pages, one gets reminded of a decade when the front, back, and inside pages of newspaper supplements overflowed with job offerings in the lowest ranks of the IT. BPO vacancies which littered the folios primarily sought to lure fresh college pass-outs ‘proficient in English’. Back then, one was yet getting familiar with names such as ‘Convergys’, ‘Daksh’, ‘Global-Vantage’, ‘EXL’, ‘Vertex’. It made one wonder why they needed so many people to ‘walk-in’ week after week, and how they made thousands of ‘on the spot offers’ with ‘revised salaries’ following ‘quick and easy interviews’ and ‘fastest selection processes’. What these selected people actually did, once they got in, was another mystery altogether.

Some of these MNCs promising nothing short of a ‘best start’ to one’s career, that too with the ‘best starting salaries for a fresher’, often came to college campuses for recruitment. They conducted large scale interviews and generously granted immediate offer-letters to final-year students, at the end of each academic year. I happily overlooked the (fine) print, the text, design, and all the other details of these BPO ads. In fact, I never bothered to figure out what the acronym meant till such time when I was in desperate need for a gadget make-over. My age old Range-Finder camera deserved to be disposed and displaced by a Digital SLR. That was the summer of 2003...

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The iconic ship building of Convergys – one of the first amongst the many that stood alone fifteen years ago, surrounded by far-­‐away sketches of multistoried constructions and a cyber-­‐hub that was yet to be born and the eight lane highway leading to Jaipur, about to be built beside it.

 

say something more about yourself (the interview)

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Call flow and traffic flow is fast and furious both inside and outside such centers of info-­exchange and mega-­data transmissions every second every day.

“You have mentioned in this form that your aim is to ‘do something different’. How would you relate that to your decision to work in a call center?” I was asked.

I had given more than couple of interviews, to get rejected on both occasions, and by then had realized what exactly they preferred to hear and the kind of profile that they wanted to hire. I was in no mood to miss my lunch and waste another day in the scorching heat traveling to one of these hotels where the interviews were conducted. I was tired of waiting for hours sipping cold water and looking at formally dressed men and women being dumped from one room to another – going through a series of eliminating rounds before reaching the interview stage, when they politely conveyed “…thank you very much, you may leave for now, we’ll get back to you…”, especially, to all those lacking a ‘neutral English accent'.

On the first occasion, I took great pleasure and interest in observing every bit of it. On the second, I was getting a hang of it. On the third, I felt like a school kid appearing for an oral examination at the mercy of the schoolmaster and was perennially requested at every step to say something (more) about oneself. But, I had no grudges. Neither the posh ambience nor the polite attitude of the employers towards hundreds of candidates walking-in everyday was comparable with the interview-scene of Ray’s ‘Pratidwandi’ [1]. The scene was acting out in reverse. Now they needed us (in bulk) more than we needed them. Any English-speaking dude eager to believe in the promises of the new-age-profession, even with less or ordinary qualifications, or with no desires to seek further qualifications, was in great demand, like never before.

On the fourth occasion, I thought that I had my answers ready.

“Well, your CV suggests something else. Why don’t you contemplate choosing a creative profession?”

The extra curricular activities’ column on my CV was getting reduced in size with each passing interview that I chose to face. Later I felt that I could have said something else instead of answering, “Madam, I am from a middle-class family, where creativity is not given much space beyond a point.”

I was reminded that I should use her first name instead of uttering ‘Madam’ repeatedly. “But, most of the creative minds come from the middle-class background”, she refuted.

“May be I don’t have much of confidence in my creative abilities.”

The conversation continued for quite long. I did not fall short of sentences to cover up this process of conscious deception. She was busy evaluating my English and was possibly overlooking the content of my answers while making points on a piece of paper as she kept asking questions regarding hobbies, movies, etc. I was asked to listen to men talking in American accent and was instructed to choose between options that summarized the probable conclusion of their conversation. Then I was asked me to wait outside.

The interview with the Senior Process Manager from Pune was supposedly the last round, I was told. A charming voice from across the table made me feel as if he had been waiting to hear from me since the time we met long ago, “So, how is life?”

“Great Sir”.

“Great? You don’t get to hear that too often. Okay, please say something about your self.”

There seemed to be no end to this essential inquiry about ‘the self’ at any stage! I started with my name and ended with my ambition, which was to make a career in a call center.

He must have found it useless to discuss the work profile with me. Truly, I had no idea about what I was supposed to do on the deck. But, I did not miss any chance to convey how keen I was to learn and deliver. This was followed by a discussion on salary, which was short, because as a fresher, I was in no position to bargain.

While passing the offer letter, the HR lady formally made a point to emphasize the formal dress code in the office. Looking back, I presume it was my appearance that prompted her to state the code. With the hair almost touching the shoulders, and a face not shaven for more than a month, the loose fit denims incapable of keeping the shirt tucked, I must have made a sufficient impression to instigate concern in her mind, although unknowingly. Jaswindar (the man who thought smoking bidi in the lawns of the corporate cathedral is quite cool) replied, “I don’t have any formal wear. Does the company pay any advance for buying some?”

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Cyber Hub @ midnight – the nerve centre of several corporates.

 

what if they find out (the first day)

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Even sky is not the limit. The exchange of information and its pace defies border – political or physical.

A cold current ran through the spine of several candidates, especially the first timers, with every signature they put on the bottom left of each page of the agreement of the terms and conditions that required them to be graduates. Obviously, quite a few of them were not graduates. What if they found out that they were not? But they did not. I guess, they never cared to verify the certificates enclosed in the pink file. Nor did they care to figure out what happened to those tax-forms, provident fund forms, insurance forms signed and submitted by the 124 employees joining job on the 9th of June. Lengthy spells of instructions related to form-filling on the first day were forgotten, as most of them were happily distracted or disinterested. The crowd was busy checking out each other – the vending machine and its options, the fancy phone and its features – also enquiring or narrating previous call center experiences, the hassle in missing or getting the first pick-up for the day...

While these strangers were desperate to know or let the others know ‘something more about themselves’, the junior officials instructing us ‘where to tick’, ‘what to remember’, ‘how to write’, ‘when to stop’ were not in a position to exhibit how irritated they were with the tough task of managing so many recruits. Things got even worse with the daylong induction lectures on training, transport, finance, assets, ‘our motifs’ and ‘your expectations’, ‘your contribution’ and ‘our expectations’. Thankfully, there was good lunch, free internet access (quite unthinkable in those days of expensive cyber cafes) and AC cabs to follow. I fancied my relief from the heat and hostel food for the next few weeks of my paid holiday without any sense of remorse.

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The Convergys building (now taken over by Vedanta) on a full moon night. The plush lawns used to be a breeding ground for generating dust haze. The compound is highly protected/exclusive zone. Epitome of global connectivity ensures complete disconnection with the local surroundings.

 

my camera vs their camera (getting trained)

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The ever-expanding city with all its imposed notions of urbanity on an area essentially rural leaves no scope for the evolution of the public space. On the contrary, any space outside the strict confines of these gated nations/notions invite threats of the highest order or at least it is perceived to be so.

What if they find out? No, they didn’t.

For the next one and a half months, we loitered around in the mornings, nights, evenings, and graveyard shifts of the classrooms and cafés (though not in every corner as mobility was highly restricted and under severe surveillance), at times enjoying and at times sleeping through the training sessions, impatiently waiting for the salary to get transferred to the Citi Bank account which they had opened for us to be swiped-out the moment the money arrived. Their surveillant eyes were not technologically advanced enough to guess the respective reasons to take up the job casually and remain appointed before absconding. A host of young fellas kept counting the number of day remaining:

  • While the trainer with 3 kids in 7 years (now needing one more) with a ‘do it or I’ll make you do it’ attitude reminded us that prostitution is oldest customer care service, and the role of a customer care executive is one of the most prestigious ones and definitely not deplorable just because we work at night (as do the docs and cops).
  • While listening to the trainees whose primary interests varied from stock exchange to cooking for the wife to horse breeding and extending till the ‘search for truth in Himalayas’. In a free speech session in VNA (Voice and Accent Training), fitness was synonymous with Baba Ramdev for some folks and euthanasia meant mass-killing. And what about capital-punishment? “Would have known if I attended the college debates”, someone proudly said. The trainer was kind to say “Then talk about censorship”. The girl with colored hair was quick to question, “Is that an automated cruise?”
  • While cruising through the consonants, diphthongs, vowel sounds, and imported ‘modules’, rapid ‘mock-calls’ and learning to intonate. We bit the ‘B’s, kissed the ‘W’s and by the time we rolled the ‘R’s, reached the soft ‘T’s and faded ‘P’s, I felt that the next big revolution was here. Tongue, lip, throat, teeth tried their level best to ape the ones across the Atlantic to the norms of their phonetic culture.
  • While obviously not uttering the obvious that this entire system was a consequence of service being subcontracted to places where establishment and labour costs were way more cheaper.

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Walls can guard the flow of trespassers but the walls can rarely be guarded against the practice of public urination. An employee relieves himself in the middle of a graveyard shift on his way back after a quick smoke during the miserly half an hour break.

 

keeping balance (the absconding case & the attrition list)

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The building came first as isolated blocks of self-sufficient units generating its own electricity and meeting its own needs. The infrastructure external and essential to its sustenance is still in its nascent stage.

In between the lines of the Punjabi beats in the moving cab or Pearl Jam playing on the i-pod in full volume to resist the former; before and after ‘hi bro’, ‘hey dude’, ‘yo man’, ‘yap buddy’; from weekend masti to an inspirational night-out, we constantly juggled with call-center jargon and silently yapped about:

  • How to revolt against ‘IST’ (Indian Stretchable Time)
  • Why the ‘pick-up time’ hadn’t been SMSed yet
  • Why the fucking cab driver did not come fucking five fucking minutes earlier
  • How often to ‘login’ early and ‘logout’ late
  • Why the ‘systems were running slow’
  • What should be the perfect ‘call-opening’ and ‘call ending’
  • How to handle ‘high call flow’
  • How to ‘sale’ a product to the ‘disinterested customer’
  • How to ‘appease’ the dissatisfied ‘enquiring consumers’
  • How to ‘empathize’ with an ‘irate customer’
  • How to keep the ‘call control’ while making the customer feel empowered
  • How to avoid ‘escalating’ the call
  • How to make full use of the two ‘fifteen minutes breaks’ and one ‘half hour break’
  • Why not to say – “I am sorry to hear that” – to a recently divorced customer
  • Whom to give the extra food coupons
  • What to do to in order to know when your calls are being monitored
  • How to reduce the ‘AHT’ (Average Handling Time)
  • How to increase the ‘C.Sac’ (Customer Satisfaction) scores
  • Why not to take two ‘consecutive weekend-offs’
  • What to write in the ‘feed-back forms’
  • Which friend should be referred to get compensated for the ‘referral’ before leaving the job
  • What else could be done to maximize ‘P4P’ (Pay for Performance)

Soon after swiping the card and clearing the balance, many of us became what they called, ‘an absconding case’ and added our names to the ‘attrition list’. The ‘cost-effective-labour’ (not ‘cheap labor’), stopped coming to office just before ‘hitting the (production) floor’ without bothering to formally say a bye, and without multiplying the hundreds of dollars that their clients had invested in our training and maintenance. Some of us had to get back to our colleges, which had re-opened. The others either complained about the team-leader or the work pressure till the time they got a call from some other call-center across the road offering a slight increment, but the same work. Others changed jobs as they habitually did twice or thrice a year to acquire a new ambience and acquaintances only to get bored yet again. One chap was smart enough to hold two offices simultaneously. The rest either perished without a trace or sat on the same chair hoping to climb the ‘vertical ladder’ by pleasing the bosses and putting more working hours while executing the ‘communicative tools’ and ‘navigation skills’ that they remembered from the training days. They were the ones the industry hoped to retain. They were also the ones too particular about their performance. Habitual consumption and consistent conflicts between the personal mornings/mourning and the professional nights took a consistent toll.

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The city sleeps. Metros come to halt. Signs of human existence disappear. But thousands of people continue with the calls in each floor of these buildings answering queries and collecting unpaid amounts catering to a different time zone altogether.

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Different floors and different corners of the same floor cater to different clients across the globe.

 

after-call wrap-up (remains of the flirtatious feed-back)

I-cards hung like nameplates around the neck all the time along with codes that were generated from the distant land. Punching these plastic cards ensured automated entry, strictly confined to those floors where we had some business. Forgetting to carry them required prolonged human intervention to convince the security that we did deserve to get in. Losing it lead to penalty. Hiding/absconding beneath one of the many call center note-pads I found the Separation Clause 4b: “upon separation from the company, you will be required to immediately return to the company, all assets and property including documents, files, book, papers and memos in your possession.”

The termination clause 6.b.i. of one of the appointment letters stated - “During the probation period you are liable to be discharged from the company’s service at any time without any notice and without assigning any reason”. But I guess the employees left the company more often without any notice or assigning any reasons. The company, most often, had no answers for this unwanted discharge to its owners across the oceans. IT abroad/onboard was not advanced enough to predict/prevent people who made the industry look like a make-shift arrangement; a probation that would rarely lead to permanence.

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A common sight of fleet of cabs (a service which is outsourced to external vendors) outside the building waiting for scheduled drops and pick-ups.

 

is there anything else that I can do to help you/me

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As the piling debris suggest infrastructural work perennially in progress.

Between the cafeteria cleaned once every hour and the adjacent murky road side dhaba; between the latest cars in the parking lot and the rickshaws waiting for those who couldn’t yet afford to pay the car-installment; between the fiber-glass windows and the jhopris (visible once the curtains were lifted) – new heights were achieved and new targets were set that were globally connected, locally disconnected.

In a site, which is otherwise devoid of consistent water supply, electricity and public transport (running it servers on generators 24X7), the vertical-limits of the translucent fiber glass and false roofs prepare the suburbs. The soothing cubicles confirm to the global standards of ‘how a city ought to look’ from a distance.

Just like the enormous demands of the IT industry, which has created its support sectors (catering, security, transport, house-keeping etc) to stray around the BPOs trying to extract their share of profit, I moved around its orbit as well for some time. Why and how there is a bit of BPO in most my creative endeavors and in the purchase of digital devices between 2003-2008 doesn’t require any further explanation.

I got better and better with my mock-calls.

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Surrounded by the debris of development and standing tall with its emphatic presence, such an imposing architecture seems like a myth that constantly challenges the harsh realities that envelop it. The pillared peak is so representative of its desire to remain connected with the ‘distant-­impossible’ 24x7.

 

Endnote

[1] The protagonist in the film violently revolted against the lack of basic amenities in the interview-space and against the idea of calling so many people for just a couple of vacancies, when people were expected to be selected not on the basis of merit, anyway.

 

The post, including the text and the photographs, is published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.

 

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