“Komal” to Mom Becomes “Kim” to U.S. Callers

By Sophia Tareen (class of 2004)

GURGAON, New Delhi, March 2003 – At sunset Komal Saini becomes the Cinderella of a global economy. Her carriage is a company taxi that picks her up in the New Delhi of power shortages and drops her off in this suburb of skyscrapers with power to spare. In this parallel world, English is spoken with a global accent, the workday is 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and Komal becomes Kim.

Here is Daksh, a three-year-old Indian company named for a Sanskrit army command meaning “attention, alertness, vigilance to act immediately with supreme urgency.”

Kim’s urgent task? To pacify the hordes of Americans with cell phones, bank accounts, computers or any other appliance with an 800-customer service number. Through the magic of fiber optic cable, dialing 800 places the caller on a global waiting list for India, Arizona or anywhere else in the world with a trained, English speaking work force.

The call to India costs no more than one to Arizona, but India’s agents cost considerably less — $45 a week in India compared to $206 a week in the United States. That advantage has made India’s call centers grow almost 70 percent in 2002. And the business shows no signs of slowing or having any real competitors because at its heart is India’s immense, college-educated and English-speaking population.

To attract new graduates, the Indian centers have created an environment that is something between a college dormitory and a corporate office — running from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Rows of computer terminals peppered with hand-scrawled Post-its are next to grids grading the top performers in C-SAT, or Customer Satisfaction, scores. And company regalia with Daksh’s mission statement cover the walls. All are meant to motivate Daksh’s 2,500 frontline employees, more than half of whom hit the phones each night.

Getting one of these call center jobs is not easy. On any given day of the week, a dozen hopeful crowd the clean corporate lobby — complete with an American flag.

The first cut is determined by an English grammar test; from there it’s off to a one-on-one interview; and finally a group discussion test. Of the 150 to 400 who apply each month, most are turned away — accents too harsh, English too muddled or service skills simply hopeless. “I’m having two brothers,” instead of “I have two brothers,” will get a prospect the boot.

“We’re not trying to give them an American accent,” said Vandana Ranganathan, head of operations. Instead, they need a “global” accent. What does that sound like?

Listen. It aims for the “sh” tone of pleasure rather than the Indian “plezer.” Or the softer “auspicious” rather than “aws-pee-sheeyus” that fluency in Hindi encourages.

Then there’s word order. “I’m holding you,” is relearned in training to “please hold.”

Some mistakes, however, resist training. In one call, for example, a U.S. customer told the Indian operator about her sister who had recently passed away. To show empathy, the Indian operator wanted to know where the woman had been buried. “Where did you lay your sister?” she asked.

Once the accent is neutralized, there’s customer service and product training — all of which happen during the same hours they will eventually work — 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

“Be sensitive to verbal cues,” says a trainer with a Daksh name tag hanging from her neck. Even if a customer yells at them, they must remain patient.

“How do you feel when a customer becomes irate?” the trainer asks.

“[I think] have I done something wrong?” a young male agent in glasses answers eagerly.

On the job, however, agents have different answers.

“I hit the Mute key on the phone and let him have it, in English or Hindi … then I remove my finger from the Mute key and tell him, ‘It’s wonderful talking to you,'” said Shika Chawla, who’s been at Daksh for 14 months.

If that doesn’t work, there’s always break time. Eminem blasts from a recreation room with pool tables. And there’s a 24-hour company cafeteria that bustles all night with a young workforce clad mostly in jeans and button-down shirts.

On a recent evening, Nitan (“Nathan”) and his buddy Nikuhu (“Neal”), both 23, were just finishing up their break.

“You have to have a lot of patience,” Nitan said, referring to the monotony. Nevertheless, he and Nikuhu have been at Daksh for 18 months and hope to stay.

Ranganathan insists, “It’s increasingly a career option and not just a transit lounge.”

But there are a few opportunities to climb the corporate ladder: some move up to team leader or manager. But many treat it as a stomping ground or even finishing school—taking a few months or a year to learn more English and then moving onto another job.

Lavinia Hieriem, who has been at Daksh for eight months, said outings, parties and potlucks help, but turnover rates—25 to 30 percent in the answering service according to company officials — are still high. Many, however, stay within the same industry.

Once they’ve re-calibrated their accents, it’s the hours that prove to be the biggest hurdle.

“I can’t adjust to the time,” added Hieriem with a laugh. “I can never sleep.”