Creating Cost-Effective Call Centers in India

When a director at NBC's office at 30 Rockefeller Center can't get her laptop to display videos, she calls the company's tech support department. The call is automatically routed to Bangalore, India, where a tech support agent comes online and either talks her through or says he'll send someone up to the office to check it. He may ask her what she thinks about the hot and humid weather. And the whole time, she'll never know he's a world away.

The call center business in India is not only booming, it's picking up speed. Companies that do business in English-speaking countries, such as GE, British Airways, Sun Microsystems and many others, are flocking to the subcontinent. Draws include India's low costs, skilled workforce, low employee turnover rates and convenient geography. Land sells for a fraction of average domestic costs, labor is a tenth of the cost of hiring similarly skilled people in the United states, and the more technical managers command only a third of the money their American counterparts make. These advantages are expected to remain for several years.

While India's infrastructure troubles are notorious, the problems are surmountable. Many of the country's states have built high-tech industrial parks with their own power plants, water systems and even housing.

The Indian pronunciation of English is sometimes maligned. But with a talent pool of 250 million English speakers (about the same population as the entire United states), a few hundred call centers--or a few thousand--should have no trouble finding qualified staff.

Training Is Key

Yet, as should be expected from such an inter-cultural environment, success hinges on training. "One of the methods they utilize is 'Spoken Language Training,' explains Ellene Felder, a manager at Deloitte & Touche in New York who has studied the India phenomenon. "The call center agent in general is considered a career path in India. It attracts professionals who have college degrees, usually from a liberal arts background. Universities and institutes connected to universities will develop Spoken Language Training programs that are customized for each company, and the emphasis is on neutralizing the accent." Imagine this--they listen to the audio portions of contemporary TV programs.

So will Indian call center agents fool Mom and Pop? Dell Computer thinks so. The company opened a center in Bangalore in June of this year. "The first segment that we are supporting is consumer and small business customers from the United states," says Bryant Hilton, a spokesperson for the Austin, Texas-based company. "Our business has been growing, especially in the consumer sector, so we needed to add capacity." And they weren't concerned that customers wouldn't understand the person at the other end. "It wasn't a concern, but we do give our employees some training in learning the American idioms and accent."

Dell initially used the Bangalore center just for inbound calls (like most centers in India), but sooner than expected, Dell started doing e-mail support too. "We have sort of a ramped time-frame, but we have bumped up the percentages that start moving over per month. It makes a lot of sense to handle the e-mail support there because of working off hours," Hilton says.

Dell chose to staff the center with its own local employees. Resource-constrained companies might find outsourcing, forming a joint venture with an Indian partner or working with an international consultant like Deloitte & Touche an easier way to go. But no matter how a company approaches them, Indian call center facilities must take cultural issues into consideration. For example, a call center in Navi Mumbai has a meditation room and dormitory for women who cannot travel at night. Often Indian call centers must provide transportation to workers and subsidize housing. Cultural issues go both ways in efforts to create a low-cost help desk connection that seems to come from around the corner.

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