Call Centers in India: Am I Talking to … Myself?

Leslie Woodford

NoteCall centers in India is part of a travel blog that I wrote during an extended business trip to India. I spent two months in New Delhi as my employer implemented a new business unit in two of its call centers. In addition to my professional work, I took time to study Hindi, an effort that fostered greater co-operation and trust among my Indian business associates. It also helped me better understand the culture. We believe that language opens a gateway to understanding culture. These pages focus on my observations and experiences in India. While I was there, I practiced Walkabout Language Learning. See the list of "More India Stories" on this page to explore how culture and language intertwine.

Daily Routine: Call Centers in India

My day starts around ten or eleven in the morning; it depends on how long I can sleep in after the sun starts shining in my window. There are no shades in my bedroom. I'm staying at the guest house owned by the company: a second floor flat in a local apartment building. This is an upscale apartment complex. A dozen buildings surround a swimming pool and a small grocery store.

The flat includes a help staff. There is the steward, Deepen, a chef, Sethi-ji, a driver, and a housekeeper. Laundry gets taken out to a third party. Deepen is in his early twenties, long and slender; he is a nervous fellow--I can tell by the way his shoulders slouch like he's afraid to stand up to anything or anyone. He hovers at breakfast and lunch to make sure that I get my meal served correctly. Sethi-ji, graying, and probably in his sixties, is short and quick witted. He's got a sense of humor. I'm a nervous to enter his domain. I'm not sure if it is appropriate for me to be in the kitchen. When I do, we have no end of fun. It tickles him pink that I'm trying to learn Hindi, and he humors me: teaches me words for garlic, lamb, tomato, and many other foods in the kitchen. He is the kind of mentor that I like to have when I learn a new language. He drills me, quizzes me on new words, and follows up on my learning each day. He'd be a master of the 3 minute drill if I showed him what I want.

The driver is sexy, a young 24 year old man with curly hair. He claims that he's single. He wants to sleep with me. He makes me nervous and I keep my door locked at night, especially after the night when he knocked on the door late one evening. I'm not sure how long he sat outside hoping I'd let him in. I don't trust this guy, but he sure is handsome. I learn later from Deepen and Sethi-ji that he has a wife at home. He took me there on one of our sight seeing excursions, it was a one-room house, maybe ten feet by eight feet in a row of houses. I met his "sister," but I wonder if it was actually his wife.

The housekeeper is young and very shy. Although he's an adult, there is something child-like in his demeanor. I only catch an occasional glimpse of him. I suspect that he is a member of one of the lower castes in India, and perhaps this is why he disappears like a shadow whenever I'm around.

I take my breakfast in the dining room: Deepen serves while Sethi-ji tidies up in the kitchen. The men share a small room in the guest house that is their week-day abode. All of them maintain a separate home elsewhere in the city, but commuting is not an option, so they go home for weekend visits when they can. The men prepare their own meals, I occasionally catch them making roti (Indian flat bread) when I sneak into the kitchen. It is Sethi-ji that I'm there to see, hoping he'll teach me more Hindi.

After breakfast, I study Hindi: I listen to my Teach Yourself CD, practice my dialogs, and work on grammar. When I tire of that, I go for my morning swim. After that, it's time for my daily shower adventure. I never know if the water will be ice cold, scalding hot, or just right.

Deepen serves me lunch. I always hope that Sethi-ji will have made me chapatis or naan, but I'm not bold enough to ask for them at every meal. During a few days when my stay overlaps with another Indian--a newly hired upper level manager who is in town. I discover that he expects--and receives--freshly made bread at every meal. I still don't have the guts to insist on it when he's not there.

Sethi-ji makes me a sack lunch to take to work. He usually puts a sandwich and banana in a clear plastic baggie. Most days I put it in an opaque plastic bag with a bottle of water to take to work. The other day, I walked out of the house with it just in the clear baggie. He said that he didn’t like the way I was carrying my lunch. I thought maybe he was upset because I was squeezing it too hard or something. But no, he made Deepen go get an opaque bag for me to put it in.

I thought it was interesting. So I asked Eric Lane (an American working at our company who has lived in India for six years) about it. He said that it was because of the evil eye. Apparently, if someone sees your food, they could give it the evil eye and it could make you sick. By keeping it out of sight people can’t give it the evil eye. I never thought about that.

The driver and I head out around two or two thirty (with my lunch appropriately cloaked in an opaque bag). We are on our way to one of our company's two call centers in India. We have a new call center that is just minutes away from the guest house. It is still under construction, but will be finished before I return to the US. I work at the newer call center during the last few weeks of my stay. I could walk if I had the nerve to walk alone in the streets of India. But, today, I'm working at the older of our two call centers in India.

Although the phones are manned twenty-four hours a day, our main call center work starts at three thirty in the afternoon. That is when the East coast is waking up. It is 5:00 am, New York time, and we are ready for phone calls. I work until mid-night or later, then come home in the dead of night. The road ways are just as fascinating at night as they are in the day.

After I slip into bed, I wait and wait for sleep to come, but it is hard to find. I'm awake most of the night. Then I find myself falling asleep during training classes as I sit in on the culture training. It is embarrassing. Eventually I discover that the anti-malaria pills I've been taking cause sleeplessness. I start taking them when I first arise and the sleep issue resolves itself.

Calling Call Centers in India

During my work day, I occasionally have to call the US to handle personal business: fixing a credit card issue, handling bank matters. It is easy since the call center is set up to call America. On one of these occasions, I called American Express's 800 number to resolve an issue on my credit card bill. When the woman answered, her Indian accent made me suspect that my call had been routed to one of the call centers in India. To confirm, I told her that I was traveling in India and that I wanted to check my account status to make sure it was OK while I was gone. I asked if she was in India too. She said she was--although she was a little reluctant to do so.

Then I asked if she worked for my same company. She said she worked for American Express--but I know this is a standard answer that many of our clients wish us to give. Our company must remain invisible to the customer. I told her the name of my company and commented that I am in India in one of the call centers in India. She got a little giggly and asked if I’m in Gurgaon (that is the name of the suburb where we are located) and I told her I was. She continued to giggle. 

She never admitted that she works for the same company, but I think that she does, based on her reaction to me. (We provide call center services for American Express--they are located on the fourth floor of the building that I am in; my office is on the second floor.) Isn’t that funny that I called an 800 number (using voice over IP--VOIP) from India to reach the US and then the call was routed back to India to an agent in the same building to handle my issue? I should have used the elevator instead.

More About Cows

Remember the vexing question that came to me? What happens when a cow dies? In that post, I explained that I could see the carcass of a cow out my office window. On Friday, there was about 30% of the cow left. The hide had "melted" to the ground and some of the bones were showing. By Sunday, there is no trace of it. I don't know if someone has kicked dirt over what was left of the carcass, or if it has been totally eaten--bones and all--or if it has been removed. I'm too chicken to walk out there to take a closer look; it is a bit unseemly in my nice business clothes to go kick around in the dirt searching for the remains of a dead cow.

Several of you have written to say that most of the cows are owned by someone and that people let their cows out in the morning to graze and the cows wander home in the evening to be milked. This is apparently a fact of which many Indians are ignorant because I've gotten varied stories when I've asked about the ownership of these cows.

I was told that stray cows are a vexing problem for the Indian government because they don't know where to put them. In my Western mind, I thought, "Well, just round them up and .... take them to the animal shelter ... oh, wait, at the animal shelters in America the animals that don't get adopted get put to sleep .... oops Indians believe cows are sacred and wouldn't ever kill them." How's that for an interesting dilemma?

--Posted by Leslie, Thursday, August 21

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