Outside, the street lights blink to life as people make their way home. Inside one particular office, however, every corner is abuzz with sound. Indian actress Aishwarya Rai and American pop diva Britney Spears jostle for pin-up space on the poster boards. Computer screens glow on every desk and soft lounge music weaves a surreal atmosphere.


A young girl in a blue salwar kameez dress sits at her desk staring at the screen. The screen lights up, and she strikes her keyboard.  Hi. This is Jessie. Happy Independence Day, Mrs. Lucas. How may I help you? At another table, a dark-haired young man who calls himself Murphy is on the phone.  No Problem, Mr. Farelly. We ll give you a new lawn mower. At another desk, a shy girl speaks:  Hi, Mr. Brown. This is Nicole from BigBucks Cards. I would like to remind you about your overdue payment, sir. Meanwhile, a colleague, Randy, portrays an aggressive credit-card salesman.  This would be a great deal, Mr….


Jessie, Nicole, Murphy, Randy  they all live in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) on India s Western coast. Most have never been to America and when they step out of their offices, they are Jayanti, Madhuri, Mahesh and Randhir. They often live in the far-flung suburbs of Mumbai, and America has been a dream destination since they were knee-high. Welcome to Youth Online: India s latest export to the world. They work to American time, try to speak like Americans, and sport attitudes that their peers in New York or San Francisco would find familiar. From Jayanti, Mahesh and Madhuri, they become Jessie, Murphy or Nicole with practiced ease every day for nearly 10-12 hours.


More than 100,000 young men and women, aged between 20 and 23, work for call centers across India, estimates the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), an association of software and IT-enabled services companies. They sell everything from cars to travel packages; they nudge tardy customers into paying their credit card bills; they warn customers about overdrafts and staff the helpdesks for shopping malls and offices all over the U.S.


Jessie, whose real name is Jayanti Rao, lives in Dombivili, a suburb of Mumbai.  I work at least 10 to 12 hours a day, she says.  It s a tough job, but it s not bad once you learn to juggle your time well. She doesn t just juggle her time; she has also had to learn her Indian and American personae. Jayanti, 23, went to a convent-run school in Dombivili and then attended college in Bandra, another Mumbai suburb. She wears her hair in a long plait and her clothes are Indian. But once she enters a company online chatroom or is on the phone, she morphs into her work persona of Jessie, a white, blonde woman who probably wears shorts to work.


Jessie s day begins at 5:30 in the evening, Indian time, when she hits the “floor.” The floor is a large area where customer service representatives, or e-service personnel, work on their projects. Each representative has a nickname (or “nick”) that becomes a part of their personalities. Some use their nicks as e-mail identities or even as second names and some use it among friends.


Jayanti says that she has to be friendly, helpful and appreciative of every customer. Most customers approach her if they want to find out about the delivery of a product purchased from an online mall or want to return something that they had put in their shopping carts. Her challenge is to convince customers against returning goods that they bought and make sure that they come back to the mall.


She fields more than 100 calls a day and not once can she let the mask slip. If it does, it is immediately noticed by her supervisors because every call she makes and every online chat she handles is monitored. There are QCIs, or quality control inspectors, who keep an eye on the spellings, the language, the tone and the attitude of each employee. Says Randhir, who works as a e-service representative with a call center,  At the end of the day, I am told where my mistakes were. It helps me correct spelling mistakes and improve my performance.


The QCI, everybody is keen to point out, is more a friend than a policeman. He steps in when a customer gets abusive or if a caller is too difficult.  We are told by the client that we can quit the call if the customer or caller gets personal. So we make sure that our representatives are not hassled unduly by such people, says one supervisor. Supervisors monitor calls to check on the tone, accent and approach of the representatives. While call center employees may not necessarily be penalized, they are reprimanded for missing opportunities or helped to see how to handle a call better, says a supervisor.


 We have to be gracious, pleasant and aggressive at the same time, says Jayanti.   This is quite different from what I used to be. But now I find that I have become more patient and I listen to my friends and parents a lot more than I used to. I also appreciate things much more.   She says that she finds Americans quick with their praise. They thank her for her help and are understanding about a lot of things.


How does she cope with the unusual work hours? Usually these don t pose a problem. The office has a lively atmosphere, and everyone has so much fun that she loves working the graveyard shift, she says.


Call center employees typically work long hours. Work begins around 5:30 p.m. in India when it is 8 a.m. in America. Some 100 to 120 people work on a project, depending on its size and nature. They work in two shifts  with the second one starting around midnight. The late shift is the most stressful, but companies say that employees are well compensated through incentives.


Like Jayanti, her colleagues on the floor are very young. They are happy to work at a snazzy office where their take-home pay usually doubles in a year or two. They start at around Rs 8,000-10,000 a month ($166 to $208 a month) and this goes up substantially if they stay on with the organization. Companies offer attractive incentives to employees who agree to work nights and holidays, says a 22-year-old who moved from Delhi to Mumbai in search of a job. He says he is happy working on holidays, even though his office would let him stay home if he chose to. He prefers to work because he can earn much more on these days.


In addition to rapidly rising salaries, office parties offer another attraction to call-center workers. Every month there are picnics, movies, Hawaiian Nights and Rain Dances and other parties that keep the place rocking and enthusiasm levels high.  We are always going out to discos and restaurants together, says one agent who has been with a call center for two years.


Most of them have no social life outside the office. Their friends are colleagues in other call centers. Also, since most social engagements are around dinner in India, they miss out on such opportunities. The office more than makes up for this, says one young woman.  We have so many parties here that we don t really need anything else.


Quite a few find their husbands or wives on the floor too. Most companies are neutral bystanders to these workplace romances but, says a senior representative with a call center, marriage almost always leads to one partner leaving the job. 


The other problem is that the initial enthusiasm fades out when working odd and long hours. And for that there are frequent de-stressing programs, yoga and meditation camps that help employees cope with the pressures. Convincing parents about unconventional work hours is another problem. Everywhere employees are encouraged to bring their parents to the office and show them around. This helps a lot, especially with the women. Most call-centers in Mumbai hire college graduates, preferably those who have taken courses in business or commerce.  


Most offices see a constant stream of applicants all through the year, and even though the turnover rate is high, supply far outstrips demand. The tribe of Jessies, Nicoles, Randys and Murphys is on the rise.


The Making of a Call-Center Agent


One of India s major advantages over other countries trying to enter the BPO market is its large pool of manpower. According to an ICICI Securities report, India has some three million students who graduate every year outside the engineering and medicine disciplines. And they all speak English  albeit with different regional Indian accents. The makeover is not easy, even for someone who is born and bred in cosmopolitan Mumbai where Western brands, movies and trends are a way of life.


Arjun Vaznaik, COO of Tracmail, a Mumbai-based provider of call center services that has several U.S-based, Fortune 100 clients in the IT, banking and telecom industries, says it takes several months of grooming to get Indian workers ready to deal with Western customers. On the floor call-center workers start as  agents  or people who are at the front line of answering or making customer calls to the U.S. Some two years later, they may become supervisors and then team leaders and finally center managers. It can take nearly five years for a call-center worker to go from being an agent to center manager.


Training is integral to every stage of this development, and so are the trainers who earn between Rs 15,000-18,000 a month ($315 to $375 a month) initially and nearly Rs 45,000-50,000 a month ($950 to $1,000 a month) after two years on the job. Each company develops its own training module. Vijay Rao, managing director and CEO of Epicenter Technologies, a provider of call-center services in Mumbai, says  the module is proprietary and the trainer can t use it elsewhere.


The first step is to recruit right.  While India has a large population of English-speaking people, the dialect and accents of English spoken in several parts of the country may not be completely suitable, says Prakash Gurbaxani, CEO, TransWorks Information Services, a leading outsourcing company offering transaction processing, financial accounting and HR-related services to international clients. While the accent and voice are important, they are not the only criteria for selection.  We have to look for people who understand that this is a high stress, challenging job and this is the way it is always going to be, says Vaznaik. Among other things, Tracmail runs a technical help desk and handles voice, chat, and e-mail responses on behalf of clients.


After joining the company, employees are put through an induction program. This lasts about 15 days for a web-based function and a month for voice-based services. This is to help employees become familiar with the ethics and goals of the organization. The next stage has three or four components depending on the project and the client. Here employees go through training programs for their voice, accent, language, domain, process behavior and attitude. Sometimes the client is a part of this training program, but that depends on the project.  


 The training is completely non-threatening, and the employees are encouraged to give feedback every step of the way, says a trainer. Training modules are usually created with the client and have two broad categories. The first deals with the technical and systemic details of the tasks the employee must perform. For instance, an agent with a web-based shopping mall must know the various processes within the mall, the services offered and the tools that he can access on his screen when dealing with a customer. The second module is aimed at helping employees understand the way Americans use the English language. They do this by watching movies, baseball games and TV shows. For example, Indian employees may be unfamiliar with expressions such as  taking a raincheck or  ballpark estimate. They soon find out. In one office, every new worker is asked to watch CNN and BBC News regularly to get the accent and tone right.  They watch BBC News, not BBC comedies, says the trainer.


During the training, employees also learn how U.S.-based customers might expect them to behave.  We tell them that interrupting a customer is bad,” the trainer adds. “People take great offence at not being heard. So they have to learn to be patient and take the conversation into their hands at the first opportunity.  U.S. customers are gracious and quick to appreciate small gestures, notes one agent with a call center. But one has to be very careful not to make errors. Spellings, for instance, are a problem area in India because British spellings are used all over the country, and many Indians are unfamiliar with American spelling conventions.  


Training programs for call-center employees offer lots of opportunity for feedback from the students. They focus on helping them build a professional business manner that can last throughout their career. It is also emphasized that training is a continuous process. Refresher courses are held every year. In addition, several companies encourage their employees to take courses after office hours. At Tracmail, for instance, Vaznaik says that the company supports employees who want to pursue an MBA or other professional degree. Other call-center providers offer similar benefits. The goal is not just to help ambitious employees build long-term careers, but also to build loyalty towards the company in an intensely competitive market.