What makes Indian call centres tick

DeeDee Doke travelled to Bangalore and New Delhi to see how major operator
Wipro Spectramind is using people development to deliver a competitive service
and put the integrity back into business in India

It’s no secret that call centres and business processing outsourcing (BPO)
have become big business in India. So big, in fact, that the workforce of the
country’s largest third-party remote processing centre grew from 50 to 5,000 in
just two years, and is still growing. During the last three months alone,
demand for its services has been climbing at such a pace that Wipro Spectramind
has added an average of 800 new recruits every month just to keep up.

Its HR team can even afford to be selective as up to 150 applicants walk in
to each of its sites every day. Between 7,000 and 8,000 young men and women
respond to every advert the company places. But only seven or eight out of
every 100 are hired to work the eight-and-a-half-hour shifts, five times a week
– serving UK and US clients – at the firm’s sites in Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi
and Pune.

"We choose the raw materials – uncut diamonds," said company
chairman Raman Roy. "Then we cut the diamonds and polish them."

A June 2002 study by India’s National Association of Software and Services
Companies and global consultancy McKinsey estimates that the global potential
for BPO’s in 2005 is £148bn, with India’s share worth £15bn. By 2008, the
survey predicts, the country will need more than one million call centre
workers to meet demand.

International clients

Spectramind’s call centre clientele includes the Dell Computer Corporation
and immediately recognisable brand names which the company will not publicly
reveal. Among its many BPO clients are the Scottish Parliament, Thames Water,
ABN Amro, Allianz, NTL, Thomas Cook, Nokia and Microsoft, and many other
potential clients have visited. "We’re very excited about the growth
prospects," said Roy.

The New Delhi call centre operation lies within an industrial zone of the
sprawling city where monkeys stalk past the windows and over the roofs. Inside,
several floors are filled with operator cubicles, and a single floor may be
dedicated to a sole client. Banners cheering on the given team hang from walls
or the ceiling. With no dress code, a Metallica t-shirt is just as at home in
the office as a sari. The grand finale of a team briefing before a shift is a
rousing blast of cheers.

While the attrition rate – said to be in the high 20s – is higher than
Spectramind’s management would like, the company aims to create a workplace
culture far from the sweatshop stereotype, building on the philosophies of such
pop management gurus as Ken Blanchard and the traits of the Generation Y
worker.

"Everything revolves around fun as a value," said Raja
Varadarajan, vice-president, talent engagement and development.

Because recruitment is so critical to the business’s success, the concept of
fun in the workplace has been extended to involving staff in bringing in new
employees. Prizes such as motorcycles, trips, mobile phones and cash are
awarded in special recruitment drives, which have led to impressive statistics.
Recently, 19-20 per cent of new hires were recruited by existing staff
references. "We want to increase that to between 40 and 50 per cent,"
said Varadarajan.

Rigorous processes

The company’s recruitment process is rigorous. The first level of hiring is
outsourced, and only shortlisted candidates ever meet a hiring official from
Spectramind. If a candidate ultimately does not make the grade but seems to
have potential, the company invests in pre-hire training to try and bring them
up to the desired level of capability.

Last year, between 400 and 500 candidates received pre-hire training with a
success rate of 60 to 65 per cent, Varadarajan said. Even those who fail are likely
to succeed elsewhere.

"The pre-hires are often hired by our competition," he added.

Once hired, the battle is on to keep the new recruits who undergo intensive
training in UK or US culture, intonation and call centre work itself before
manning the phones. By UK standards, the pay is poor, ranging from the
equivalent of £112 to £168 a month. However, it is reasonable by Indian
standards, and even more so for the young singles with an average age of 23,
who typically work there. Traditionally they live at home well into adulthood
or share flats with friends if they come from outside the city.

Development opportunities

Ambitious workers can advance their careers if they choose to stay in the
business. Up to 60 percent of Spectramind’s supervisors come from within.

"We’ll provide opportunities for growth. And career development is not
vertical alone – it’s also lateral," Varadarajan said. "We allow
movement across functions."

Innovative employee perks at Wipro Spectramind actually benefit the employer
as well. A concierge service, available to every employee, keeps the worker on
the job while someone else handles the inconveniences of Indian life, such as
having to pay household bills. Employer-provided transportation gets staff to
job sites on time and returns them to their homes – with the safety of female
staff taken particularly seriously. A male employee is always the first to be
picked up and the last to be dropped off on the bus routes.

The cost savings to Wipro Spectramind result in two ways: staff are sure to
be on the job when they are needed, and the firm invariably gets good prices
from the vendors for their services.

"We negotiate based on scale, and it is always a win-win
situation," said Varadarajan.

With the shift of IT enabled services such as call centres and other BPO
concerns to India reaching floodlike proportions, Spectramind is mindful that
the competition for both new business and qualified workers has gone beyond
intense.

"The shakeout has already started," said Varadarajan. "The
big players are in now."

Profile
Wipro Limited

Employees: Between 18,000 and
19,000

Headquarters: Bangalore, India

Other facilities in India: Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai,
New Delhi, Pune

Overseas locations: Australia, Canada, Finland, France,
Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, UK, United Arab Emirates, US

Net income in 2002: $170m, down 3 per cent from 2001

Revenues in 2002: $902m, plus 28 per cent from 2001

History: First created as a cooking oil company. Cooking
oil, along with other consumer products, is still made by the company, but
Wipro has gone on to embrace software, hydraulics, medical systems, call
centres, business process outsourcing and energy

Recruitment: About one in every 100 applicants is hired

HR practices include:

– Highly formalised succession planning at managerial levels

– A requirement that 5 percent of the workforce’s time be
devoted to training and development

– An annual technology forum for sharing information among
employees about company projects

– Identification of and strategies to retain ‘at risk’ talent
that may be planning to leave

– An employee portal that, among other offerings, provides
employee self-service, promotes knowledge sharing and allows workers to
nominate colleagues for recognition

– Competency mapping

– Life-cycle leadership training

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