The hostile customer and the passive agent: Cultural Interfaces in the Indian Outsourcing Industry
Abstract Relying on qualitative interviews and thematic analysis, this paper explores how transnational call centers in India evolve practices in an attempt to counter the occasional hostility by customers based in the United States. These range from techniques which prevent customers from recognizing that their call is being routed to India through the use of neutralized accents, ‘locational masking’ and familiarizing agents with American culture to Taylorist modes of ensuring ‘passivity’ in the agent in the face of a hostile customer. I argue that these practices form an inherent part of transnational call center work and subsequently lend to its uniqueness as a poster child of globalization in a brave new post industrial world.
“When we listened back to calls people had complained about often they were fine. Some people wanted the member of staff to fail because they were in India. I don’t know why that should be, but when customers start voting with their feet, you have to respond.”
—Adrian Web (Call Center Manager, BBC news, 2/14/2007) quoted in Wang (2009).
Globalized work processes have fundamentally altered the ways in which labor markets are organized around the world (Mirchandani 2004). The global outsourcing industry also referred to as the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry is arguably the poster child of globalization. It is a relatively new industry that has been growing at a very fast pace in the last few years around the world (Deery & Kinnie 2004). It includes a range of services, from back office operations such as airlines ticket and insurance claims processing and medical transcription services, to call centers that provide 24/7 customer support, back office services, telemarketing, for banks, credit card companies, computer companies and the like (Upadhya 2006). The biggest trend in this industry in recent times has been a move to offshore work to countries like India and the Philippines where there is a large availability of cheap, but high quality, English-speaking labor – the key ingredient for running call centers (Dossani & Kenney 2003). India being a former British colony possesses a large pool of English-speaking workforce willing to work at salaries which are a fraction of those in the OECD countries. Since, offshoring is structured to take advantage of labor arbitrage arising out of wage differentials between countries; India is uniquely suited to be an offshoring destination. About 80 percent of the call center industry in India caters to international markets (Holman, Batt, and Holtgrewe 2007) namely those of the US, UK and Australia. In fact, this industry in India was entirely a product of globalization since there was no domestic call center industry catering to the Indian market at the time when the international call centers started (Sitt 1997).
In the last decade, the BPO industry has grown exponentially leading to the large scale creation of entry-level white collar jobs in India and the consequent loss of jobs in the OECD countries. The popular sentiment in first world countries like the United States has been largely anti outsourcing with the subsequent politicization of the issue at the national level with the 2005 Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry’s infamous declaration on ‘Benedict Arnold’ companies’ (“‘Benedict Arnold’ CEOs,” The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2004.). One UK MP predicted that ‘there would not be a call centre in Scotland in five years (Brian Donoghue. Herald, 14 March 2003, cited in Taylor and Bain 2005).
The BPO industry in India can be divided into two broad categories – voice-based processes and non voice-based processes. Call centers or contact centers are a component of the BPO industry, relating to voice-based processes. The call center industry is well situated within India’s global leadership with...
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