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The World | COLUMN ONE

A Crash Course on Irate Calls

Now that they can fake being American pretty well, tech-support workers in India are called upon to be assertive. Or at least try.

August 02, 2004|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

BOMBAY, India — In a sleek new office building, two dozen young Indians are studying the customs of a place none of them has ever seen. One by one, the students present their conclusions about this fabled land.

"Americans eat a lot of junk food. Table manners are very casual," says Ritu Khanna.

"People are quite self-centered. The average American has 13 credit cards," says Nerissa Dcosta.

"Seventy-six percent of the people mistrust the government. In the near future, this figure is expected to go up to 100%," says Sunny Trama.

The Indians, who range in age from 20 to 27, have been hired to take calls from cranky or distraught Americans whose computers have gone haywire. To do this, they need to communicate in a language that is familiar but a culture that is foreign.

"We're not saying India is better or America is better," says their trainer, Alefiya Rangwala. "We just want to be culturally sensitive so there's no disconnect when someone phones for tech support."

Call centers took root here during the 2001 recession, when U.S. companies were struggling to control expenses. By firing American customer service workers and hiring Indians, the firms slashed their labor costs by 75%.

At first, training was simple. The centers gave employees names that were acceptable to American ears, with Arjun becoming Aaron and Sangita becoming Susan. The new hires were instructed to watch "Friends" and "Ally McBeal" to get an idea of American folkways.

But whether Aaron and Susan were repairing computers, selling long-distance service or fulfilling orders for diet tapes, problems immediately cropped up. The American callers often wanted a better deal or an impossibly swift resolution, and were aggressive and sometimes abrasive about saying so.

The Indians responded according to their own deepest natures: They were silent when they didn't understand, and they often committed to more than their employers could deliver. They would tell the Americans that someone would get back to them tomorrow to check on their problems, and no one would.

Customer satisfaction plummeted. The U.S. clients grew alarmed. Some even returned their business to U.S. call centers.

Realizing that a new multibillion-dollar industry with 150,000 employees was at risk, Indian call centers have recently embarked on much more comprehensive training. New hires are taught how to express empathy, strategies to successfully open and close conversations, and above all how to be assertive, however unnatural it might feel.

"We like to please," says Aparajita Ajit, whose title is "head of talent transformation" for the call-center firm Mphasis. "It's very difficult for us to say no."

Khanna, Dcosta, Trama and their new colleagues work for Sutherland Global Services, a New York firm that is one of the larger outsourcing companies here. They've been put through a three-week training session where they research hot-button issues, pretend they are American anchors reporting the latest news, and imitate celebrities. ("I am Michael Jackson," began Smitha Shetty's presentation. "I am innocent in this child molestation case.... ")

"What they know about Americans is just the tip of the iceberg," says the teacher, Rangwala. "Violence and sex, this is not what America is about. Or it's not the only thing America is about."

To underline this point, she shows movies in class. Today it's "Catch Me If You Can," the Steven Spielberg film about a real-life con man, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. She stops the film every 30 seconds to pepper the students with questions.

DiCaprio's mother has run off, leaving him and his father to prepare their own meals. "What is he making?" asks Rangwala. "Pancakes!" shout the students.

"What is today?"

"His 16th birthday!"

"What does his father give him?"

"A checkbook!"

"What's happening?"

"A divorce!"

A checking account in America is like a savings account in India, where the American version of a savings account is known as a fixed deposit. Divorce may be common in America but, as the movie shows, it's still painful. And pancakes are eaten at any hour of the day.

These small bits of information may come in handy. Just as DiCaprio's character figures out how to impersonate a doctor and an airline pilot, these students are learning to fake being American.

The goal of computer help desks like Sutherland's is to have the caller do as much of the work as possible himself, and to keep him on the phone the shortest amount of time possible -- without failing to help him.

If the Indian rep has no idea what the American customer means when he asks, "What's a ballpark figure for getting my system upgraded?" a 15-minute call might stretch to half an hour. Long calls can choke the system, given that one of Sutherland's clients, a major U.S. computer manufacturer, gets 250,000 service calls a month.

This is the students' last day of cultural and voice training. Rangwala warns them that at least half a dozen are still speaking incomprehensibly and might wash out.

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