Published Date
01 - Mar - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2006
Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) has been around for about half a decade, and has been steadily gaining ground in India. According to the NASSCOM Strategic Review 2006, employment in BPOs, which comes under the ITES (IT-Enabled Services) sector, was a good 3,16,000 in fiscal 2005, beating the 2,97,000 figure for the IT services sector. These numbers, according to NASSCOM, are expected to go up to 4,09,000 in FY 2006. Revenues from this category are expected to be $7.2 billion (Rs 32,400 crore).

Does this imply air-conditioned workplaces, transport to work, meals and snacks on the house, and lifestyle perks for the 2.5 million fresh graduates that are churned out every year across the country?

The Quality Boom
The BPO boom in the past five years has provided a window of career opportunity for many fresh graduates. And jobs at BPOs are no longer just about informing a Mr Jones in faraway New Jersey that his power bill is overdue or updating a Mrs Smith's name in the records because she just had a divorce.

Take the case of Chennai-based Congruent Solutions, which administers retirement benefits for US citizens. Their process comprises 20 different activities, and it's usually a Chartered Accountant who heads a team. In reference to the terms used for businesses such as this, its president and co-founder Bala J Raman says, "There is a thin line between labels such as KPO (Knowledge Process Outsourcing) and BPO. I would call our firm a Business Process, albeit a high-end one.

On the eligibility front, "An M.Com. or a graduation in actuarial science is our only requirement. Of course, the candidate should clear our aptitude tests and interviews." Raman continues, "One's qualification is, of course, a consideration at the start. But after that, growth is a matter of how well an employee uses his skills: analysis of a situation, the ability to anticipate roadblocks, and put corrective measures in place." As an example, he cites the case of an employee who rose to a Team Leader position in just two years, although he was not a qualified Chartered Accountant.

Do You Speak English?
A large majority of BPOs are still at the lower end of the process hierarchy. Epicenter Technologies, Mumbai, is one of the largest BPOs that provides collection services. Sunita Bhuyan, training head and spokesperson, says, "We look for only two qualifications while recruiting freshers; they have to speak English, and they should be 'smart'".

Training strategies in this sector have evolved. According to Bhuyan, what used to be all about voice and accent has now become more of communications and relationships. The accent, apparently, is no longer so much of an issue; neither is the name. Almost 50 per cent of Epicenter's clients now allow the agents to operate with their own names. Even so, modifications, as it were, are sometimes necessary. Bhuyan says, "It's just a matter of saving valuable time… 'Kris' is far easier for a Westerner to understand and relate to than 'Krishnamachari'." Imagine someone taking five minutes to explain his name!

One's qualification is a consideration at the start. But after that, growth is a matter of how well an employee uses his skills"
Bala J Raman, President and founder, Congruent Solutions

Climbing The Ladder

At Epicenter, a fresher joins as an Associate CRA (Customer Relations Advisor/Agent) with a pay of Rs 8,000 to 12,000. His rise to a senior CRA is tenure-based; beyond that, performance becomes the parameter. The Team Leader, according to Bhuyan, is seen as the God of the Floor, and that is the post every associate aspires towards. But there are twelve members for every Team Leader, which gives the aspiration a 1:12 ratio of fulfillment. And everybody is smart, which doesn't help either!

Bhuyan advises a wider perspective. "Once an associate gets an idea of the process, there are other areas which he can consider, QA (Quality Assurance) or MIS (Management Information System) for instance. The HIPPO (High Identification Program for Potential Performance in Operations) program identifies high performers in operations. Such "HIPPOs" are given opportunities to "shadow" various operations across functions-that is, see first-hand what they involve. At the end of this process, the HIPPO identifies the particular next-level function he would like to take up.

But movement is not immediate. A vacancy has to arise, or the business has to scale up. And within this span there is always the lure of a more lucrative offer. As a result, even in the face of dynamic HR practices, the average span of an associate remains 12 months. A pragmatic approach for a young associate is to not have dreams about being in the upper management rightaway. There are a host of B-school grads headed in that direction. They typically handle analytics and research, entering the organisation at average salaries of Rs 4.5 lakh per annum.

Bhuyan's advice to youngsters looking at the job market: "Work at a call centre rather than opting for a C-grade business school. At the end of the two years you spend here, your earning capacity will be higher. Also consider continuing your education on a part-time basis." Firms such as Epicenter encourage their employees to pursue academics by way of study leaves and accommodating shift timings.

Is It All Good?
Experiences vary. Tina Sharma, 26, had a position as a sales executive with a leading pharmaceutical in Pune. Unable to pursue the job after marriage, she sought alternative employment, and good communication skills landed her a job at a leading BPO. Tina was delighted. Although the pay was no higher than at her earlier employment, she did not have to commute.

Soon the flip-side began to surface. Being a good communicator had its disadvantages: customers would end up chatting-especially those who had called to have their names changed on the records after a divorce. In the midst of playing agony aunt, she had to cross-sell, because incentives are based on the sales targets achieved. Adding to the pressure was the fact that calls are monitored, and that one has to complete a targeted call quota. Irregular working hours topped it all off, and the toll began to tell. Outside of work, life came to a standstill.

Then there is 23-year-old Blessy Varghese, who works in a Pune-based data process. She says, "With an M.Com., it feels foolish sifting through and sorting piles of paper. But the money is good. I hope to end this drudgery once I get married." But not all see it in a negative light. 22-year-old Vinanti Sanyal of Mumbai says, "It's not always fun and games, but yes, they ensure that the mood is as upbeat as possible." She avers a BPO is a good place to get introduced to a professional work environment, while adding a warning: "To get fired is also easy. The reason could be trivial."

Rights Is Might
Datta Iswalkar, leader of the Mumbai Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, is concerned about rights for BPO workers: he has floated the Young Professionals Collective (YPC)-an organisation to represent call centre employees. "Youngsters are attracted by the glamour. Though the salaries are good, there are issues such as the continous use of headsets, which causes hearing problems, and safety while travelling late at night." YPC, still only a few months old, has 50 registered members from various BPOs in Mumbai.

Beyond The Moolah
Sanjay Verma, Managing Director of ITC Infotech, which, among other IT services, manages a 2,500-seater BPO in Bangalore, pitches vigorously for those wanting to make careers at a BPO. "10 years down the line, I see a middle manager making Rs 20 lakh per annum. Where else can a fresh graduate find a more renumerative growth track?" He defends call centre work as legitimate and respectable, and not merely as a pit stop before further education or marriage. To defend his point, he asks, "How is selling credit cards considered not respectable, while selling SIM cards for a telco widely accepted? Is it just because the former involves night shifts?"He does admit, though, to the mind-numbing and repetitive nature of the task: "Beyond a point, we cannot trade in cash for this aspect. Adding creative value to the job is perhaps the biggest challenge for us. But this is bound to happen in any operation of scale, not just in a BPO."

To sum it all up, if you're planning to venture into a call centre job, tread cautiously, and always have a backup plan or a larger goal for your career. A job at a BPO could best serve as a means towards that.

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