Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Call of the Call Centre Part 3

Is it really a career?

There is a cloud hanging over the call centre industry and it's basically the question: "Is this more than a job I do for a while to get some quick money?"

The BPOS are of course trying to project the call centre as a 'career' option. They point out that you have every opportunity to move up and become a 'team leader' or trainer. To retain their staff call centres offer not only monetary and non monetary lifestyle perks but even the opportunity to complete an MBA side by side.

Yet, call centre employees are dropping like flies.
A batch of 30 which joined Daksh 2 months ago is already down to 25. It's the same scene in every BPO. Every 1st of the month (when salaries are credited) sees a few more employees quit without a single day's notice.

So what is going wrong? Let me first touch briefly on a couple of the unavoidable factors
a) Timing: Working at night - as the majority of call centres do - can wreak havoc, biologically. Certain people are affected more than others - their systems just do not adjust. There is a feeling of being out of sync with family and friends due to the unusualwork timings. And all this can be a reason to quit and look for a more 'normal' job, even if it means accepting lower pay.

However, in majority of cases - I think health reasons are a factor, not THE factor that precipitates the decision to quit.

b) Experimentation: The late teens and early 20s is the stage in life where one tries out many different kinds of things. Working at a call centre is one of them. You graduate, you're at a loose end. You take up a job, even as you are searching for something undefinable, something more. The easiest job you can take up is at a call centre.

'More' usually boils down to one of two standard options - MBA or going abroad for studies. So yes, the 'monotony' of a call centre job may have something to do with it but many others who work at far more interesting jobs also decide that this is the time to switch back to being a student for just a little longer. They're not quite ready to 'settle down' into a career.

Desperately seeking Susies and Sams...
Graduation used to be a minimum requirement. Now those who've passed class 12 will do. Some 18 year olds may be looking at working full time and studying by correspondence as a serious alternative. But the majority aren't.

Those who are still in regular college and working at BPOs - or those who join in April or October (just when summer/ Diwali vacations begin) ARE obviously in it only for a quick buck. If the call centre is desperate enough to hire them, it should be prepared for their sudden exit. They can at best be seen as a temporary workforce.

What the hell can HR do about it?

Despite these unavoidable factors, there are things call centres can focus on to stem attrition.

The most important being hire the RIGHT person. And by that I mean look at not just skills but temperament and background.

Generally, out of 100 applicants a call centre hires just 12-15 people. And given the pressures of "1000 to be hired this month", I think the goal is to hire as many 'ready-to-go' candidates they can.

The very people who are extremely confident and speak English very well are the ones who probably have access to better opportunities - and quit at the drop of a hat.

I am sure if a statistical analysis is done it will be found that young people from better colleges (say the top 10 in Mumbai and Delhi eg Xaviers, SRCC, etc) and higher academic achievements are the ones who will join with a very short term view. This profile will never view the call centre as a career option.

In fact, most would consider working at a call centre for too long quite infra dig. Leaving a call centre job is also relatively easier for them as generally, they would come from well to do backgrounds.

So, if I were the HR manager I would look at a slightly different academic and psychological profile. I would look for people who may not seem so attractive today but who could be 'groomed to bloom'. I am no psychology expert but this example from a very interesting book called Learned Optimism by Dr Martin Seligman might provide some food for thought.

The insurance company Met Life was plagued by a chronic shortage of agents. Agents were recruited from among a pool which passed a 'career profile' test (which indicated aptitude).
However, Seligman believed 3 characteristics were key for success:
1. aptitude
2. motivation
3. optimism

He had already found that successful insurance agents were a stunningly optimistic group. So in 1985 the company tried an experiment. In addition to the regular test they also added an ASQ (a psychological test which rated whether the candidate was an optimistic thinker or a pessimistic thinker).

An optimistic thinker was seen as someone who would explain away a bad event eg person called refusing to speak to them with external reasoning ("he must be busy"). A pessimistic person would think - I always get the phone slammed on me (ie take it personally).

Met Life found that hiring candidates who just failed to make the grade on the aptitude test but scored very well on ASQ were successful at their jobs. In fact, the company went a step further and decided not to hire those who did very well on the aptitude test but scored low on ASQ, as pessimists just didn't make great salesmen.

I think this is an insight call centres should definitely reflect on. Given training, positive strokes and the right atmosphere English speaking skills can be upgraded. But basic temperament and attitude can't - at least not that easily!

If call centres can take in average Anands and Aartis and transform them - they will be rewarded with employees who stick on - and value their jobs. A recent piece in the Sunday Times of India focussing on four such young people is a case in point.

Other profiles I'd be keen to hire:
- Small town folks with average marks
- Young people from lower middle class backgrounds who've somehow managedan education. They have a real financial need - and drive to succeed.

English - it's a skill, not just a language
In fact, the long term future of the call centre industry IS going to be people from such backgrounds. The teaching of English in government and vernacular schools has to be top priority. Like using a computer, English must be seen as a marketable skill - not 'cultural invasion'.

The less privileged instinctively know this and that's why even your bai will somehow scrimp and scrounge but prefer to send her child to an 'English medium' school.

In fact I think there is also a pressing need for a TV channel catering to kids which is purely in English. Children from non-English speaking homes never quite learn the finer nuances of the language because they are only exposed to it in the classroom. They need cultural exposure to English - regularly and in context and cartoons in English could provide some that. Certainly Sesame Street in English would!

Conclusion: A call centre can be more than a job - but not for everyone. Identify the right kind of young people and helping them reach their potential is the only solution to the 'attrition' problem. Everything else just buys you a little more time.


  1. Anonymous12:20 PM

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