Online Extra: The Good Life in a Bombay Call Center

Far from a dead-end job, for college-educated Indians, answering phones for Wipro Spectramind's global clients is a plum position

The road to Powai, a suburb of Bombay, is pot-holed and traffic-snarled. Typical India, a visitor would think: poor infrastructure and no sign of improvement. But turn in at the Hiranandani Gardens complex, and Powai turns into paradise. Smooth, paved, tree-lined, well-lighted roads, one of which leads up to a tall glass and marble building called Spectra Towers.

Three floors there contain the offices of Wipro Spectramind, India's largest call center. It's midnight, and while the country sleeps, Wipro Spectramind is wide awake and buzzing to the daytime activities in America. Here in Bombay, 1,200 smart young Indians are customer-service agents for giant U.S. corporations, from banks to insurers to airlines.

Working in rooms beautifully fitted with neat cubicles in pinewood and green fabric, using headphones and computers, these youngsters answer calls, take orders, respond to queries, make bookings, and are generally pleasant to these companies' customers who have a transaction to make or a question to ask.


  "Hello, my name is Janice, how can I help you?" Or, "Please hold, I won't be a moment while I check the information for you," are typically heard. It's a fun environment. Christmas is just over, and the rooms are decorated with buntings and silver bells.

Hanging from the ceiling, however, are the really important notices that remind the operators about their manners. "Thank you for holding," says one: "Don't say 'yeah,' say 'yes,'" advises another. "Go that extra mile," urges a third. Down the halls, a room is divided into teams, which compete with each other to provide the best service and receive a coveted trophy. All the teams have American names like Gladiator and Moulin Rouge.

The employees' average age is 21 or 22. Most are recent college grads, both men and women, and this is their first job. But unlike in the U.S. -- where call-center positions are often part-time, dead-end, and done by people without higher education -- for young Indians these jobs lead to further success, while earning them a respectable income.


  Take Tijo George, 21, and in his final year of college. While this is the third job for the dimunitive young man with a silver hoop in one ear and who has put himself through college, he's happiest about this one. "I like talking to people, being interactive. It helps me develop my personality," he says, adding that he talks to at least 100 people a day.

Developing their interpersonal skills seems to be one of the important reasons for most of the call-center workers doing this eight-hour midnight shift, night after night. Christopher Jones, 22, a graduate from the sunny southern state of Goa, is a supervisor at Spectramind. Tall and pleasant, Jones has been working here for a year, ever since the center opened, and is skilled enough to mentor and tutor newcomers. He says the job is great starting practice for his planned future in the hospitality industry, or any other job in the services sector. "It teaches me how to talk to people and our bosses, and become a better person," he says.

More important for Jones, the money is darn good. At $3,710 a year, he has become the important wage earner of the family -- he was orphaned young -- and is proudly putting his little sister through private school. He dreams of owning a "nice car and a house" someday. Jones says he could earn more at other call centers, since his experience and skills are in great demand, but at Spectramind, his "status in society has gone up."


  He has a cell phone and a credit card -- highly unusual among his peers in India, but the credit-card companies consider a Wipro Spectramind employee a good credit risk. In fact, 99% of the call center's employees have cell phones and credit cards, an especially important necessity for employees as they take calls for credit-card companies, says Mahesh Nair, who runs the Delhi and Bombay operations.

Spectramind, a three-year old company started by Raman Roy, an American Express exec who originally created the first call center in India for American Express (AXP ) and later for GE (GE ) -- both of which have their own centers in India -- has the best reputation in the business. Since the shifts are at night, when public transport is neither predictable nor always safe, Spectramind owns 96 SUVs to transport employees to and from work. That makes it a top employer for young women, whose families feel secure about their safety.

So far, Spectramind has nearly 4,000 employees working from centers in New Delhi, Bombay, and Pune. Two more will shortly be inaugurated in Bombay and Madras in South India. Business is booming. Acquired last year by Indian tech company Wipro Technologies, Spectramind recently bagged a big contract with Delta Airlines (DAL ) to take on some of its customer-service calls.


  It provides more than just $10-an-hour voice and customer-relations support. Spectramind also handles insurance claims processing and sells $500 collectibles for one of the world's largest memorabilia companies. At the very highest end, it has seven PhDs in mammalian molecular biology who collect and sift through the global research produced in their field for a U.S. client that collates the material and sells it to companies in industries such as pharmaceuticals. It costs U.S. companies 40% to 60% less to have this done in India, says Nair, who thinks the work is just as good if not better.

It has been easy for Spectramind to ramp up: Thousands of Indian students graduate from college every year and are looking for jobs. Spectramind chooses college grads and typically takes two months to prepare them before they hit the phones. Training comprises every thing from familiarity with the clients' services, to cultural, voice, and accent training, industry knowledge and expertise in terminology, corporate etiquette, compliance issues and quality standards.

Newcomers get buddied up with the more experienced employees. Classrooms are bright and filled with charts on Americana -- the latest scores on the Utah Jazz basketball game, vegetation in the state of Arizona, trivia such as the latest gossip on pop icons like Madonna.


  Sometimes, a Spectramind client will send its employees to train the local players. But more often than not, Spectramind does the job on its own. At the voice- and accent-training lab, about 30 students are being trained to answer calls. The instructor, Ayaz Alladin, has a masters degree in human resources, was a sales manager with Compaq in the Middle East, and lived in Canada and the U.S. for 14 years before returning to India. He's very strict in class: "Roll the 't's like 'd's, and roll your 'r's," he stresses. Then he gives them an accent test -- "Internet like 'Innernet,' and 'better' like 'bedder,'" he roars.

Confident trainees perform a mock customer-service call in front of the class. Their American accent is soft, and occasionally it slips. That's Alladin's worst nightmare, but he figures he can't do much about it. He finds that once in direct interaction with a customer, they usually perform well.

Among the many reasons Spectramind has happy clients, is its elaborate backup for connectivity. It uses a combination of fiber and satellite links, and two phone companies carry the data. Just for abundant caution, Spectramind uses an undersea fiber cable that then runs though the U.S. from Los Angles to New Jersey. "You can snap any of our links today, and it won't affect us," says Nair. India's reputation as a back-office center depends on it.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay

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