tech support moving overseas-- complete with fictitious American names!

From: Strata Rose Chalup (
Date: Mon Mar 26 2001 - 17:28:16 PST

I found this fascinating. I have no problem with it, but it's an
interesting ethical and cultural issue when workers in India need
to invent American "cover stories" to do phone support! The article
does not say *why* they need to do this-- whether it is self-imposed,
by the company they work for, or requested by the clients who outsource
call centers, or what. But it's very interesting..

Hi, I'm in Bangalore (but I Dare Not Tell)

Strata Rose Chalup [KF6NBZ]                      strata "@"
VirtualNet Consulting                  
 ** Project Management & Architecture for ISP/ASP Systems Integration **

Hi, I'm in Bangalore (but I Dare Not Tell)

March 21, 2001

Hi, I'm in Bangalore (but I Dare Not Tell)


BANGALORE, India, March 15 — With frosted glass and funky amber lights playing off the turquoise walls, the offices of Customer Asset look more like a Santa Fe diner than a telephone call center in southern India. The cultural vertigo is complete when employees introduce themselves to a visitor.

"Hi, my name is Susan Sanders, and I'm from Chicago," said C. R. Suman, 22, who is in fact a native of Bangalore and fields calls from customers of a telecommunications company in the United States.

Ms. Suman's fluent English and broad vowels would pass muster in the stands at Wrigley Field. In case her callers ask personal questions, Ms. Suman has conjured up a fictional American life, with parents Bob and Ann, brother Mark and a made-up business degree from the University of Illinois.

"We watch a lot of `Friends' and `Ally McBeal' to learn the right phrases," Ms. Suman said. "When people talk about their Bimmer, you have to know they mean a BMW."

"Or when they say `No way, José,' there is no José," added Ms. Suman's co-worker, Nishara Anthony, who goes by the name Naomi Morrison and, if asked, says she comes from Perth Amboy, N.J.

The point of this pretense is to convince Americans who dial toll- free numbers that the person on the other end of the line works right nearby — not 8,300 miles away, in a country where static- free calls used to be a novelty.

Call centers are a booming business in India, as companies like General Electric and British Airways set up supermarket-size phone banks to handle a daily barrage of customer inquiries. The companies value India for its widespread use of English and low-cost labor.

But call centers are only the low end of a much larger industry of Indian software developers, transcribers, accountants, Web site designers and animation artists who work on projects for foreign companies from Indian offices. By 2008, such assignments will generate 800,000 new jobs and $17 billion in revenue for India, according to the consultants McKinsey & Company.

"India is on its way to being the back office for the world," said Shriram Ramdas, one of the founders of Bangalore Labs, which manages Web sites and other information networks for companies from a futuristic office in the International Tech Park on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Doing back-office chores for advanced economies may not sound glamorous, especially for a nation that has created an $8 billion computer software industry virtually from scratch in the last decade. But it could spread the wealth of India's technology revolution beyond the pockets of prosperity that exist today in Bangalore, Hyderabad and a few other hubs of high technology.

"Right now, when you come to our campus, you're leaving India behind," said N. R. Narayana Murthy, the chairman of Infosys Technologies, one of India's most successful software companies and the first to be listed on Nasdaq. "We're living in a make-believe world."

With its putting green, aerobics studio, basketball court and even a deer park, the Infosys headquarters is a powerful symbol of what technology has brought to India since the late 1980's. Companies like Infosys and the rival Wipro Ltd. are deeply embedded in the microchips of dozens of the largest American businesses.

Unlike Taiwan or South Korea, which became known as low-cost producers of computer hardware, India made its name as an unparalleled customer service agent. While their American clients sleep, software writers churn out code, which is then beamed by satellite to the United States.

These services became so valuable that the founders of Infosys and Wipro were able to take their companies public at dot-com-like valuations. Mr. Murthy became a billionaire, and stock options showered unheard-of riches on even low-level employees. The man who serves tea to Mr. Murthy recently cashed in his options to buy a $100,000 house. His driver bought his own car.

About 2.8 million people work in India's technology industry, even with a steady exodus of top software developers to Silicon Valley or suburban Boston. Yet the industry, despite its breakneck growth, still accounts for only 2 percent of India's total economic output of $450 billion.

For all the talk about the Indian technology revolution, the technology industry has made only a glancing impression on the physical landscape of the country. Bangalore is ringed by technology parks that could be in Palo Alto or Austin. But the city itself is a mess, with potholed roads, crumbling buildings and a ramshackle, overburdened airport with no international flights.

For technology to make a dent in the pervasive poverty of this country, Mr. Murthy contends, it must account for 10 percent of India's gross domestic product. At current growth rates, India will have a $900 billion economy in 2010; technology would then have to be a $90 billion industry. "We need to broaden the base of technology in India," Mr. Murthy said. "This new business will be very valuable as a way to generate jobs for people who are not as skilled as software programmers."

Although back-office work is not particularly challenging for a company like Infosys, Mr. Murthy said he would consider expanding into it, if only to create thousands of more jobs in Bangalore.

Jobs in call centers are coveted here. While the salaries are hardly lucrative by technology industry standards — anywhere from $1,600 to $2,100 a year — they beat those for most clerical positions.

"In the U.S., these jobs are taken by housewives or kids who haven't decided what they want to do with their lives," said K. Ghanesh, 39, the founder of Customer Asset. "Here, they are career jobs for college graduates."

The back-office business may help cushion India from the economic slowdown in the United States. As companies cut their spending on new computer systems, Indian software producers are likely to feel the pinch.

But routine work, like processing insurance claims or settling credit card bills, goes on no matter what the economic climate. Indeed, as companies look for ways to cut costs, more of them may send such work to India, where wages often run half those in the United States.

Sending jobs abroad in uncertain times does not bring good publicity to American companies. None of the foreign clients of Customer Asset permit the company to disclose their names, and the offices are scrupulously bare of any reference to non- Indian clients. A spokesman said only that Ms. Anthony and Ms. Suman serve a telecommunications company based in the United States.

It would not be the first time that America's misery is India's opportunity.

Ashok Soota, a prominent technology executive who recently started his own software consulting firm, noted that India's high-technology industry was born in 1991, a recession year, when American companies first looked overseas for skilled, but cheap, programmers to update their computer systems.

"This slowdown will force us to explore new markets," Mr. Soota said. "But this time, there is another factor — bandwidth."

In the last two years, India has installed reliable high-capacity telephone lines in most of its major cities. That makes it possible for people in this country to communicate with customers in the United States, by phone or over the Internet, with no discernible difference from a calling center in Nebraska.

The improved telephone network has essentially erased the advantage of other countries that offer back- office services — notably Ireland, one of the growth leaders of the expensive new Europe.

India's greatest strength in this business may prove to be its ability to adapt, chameleon-like, to its customers. For a decade, Infosys, Wipro and others have run development centers in the United States to reduce the anxiety of American companies in dealing with foreigners.

Now, companies here are blurring the line between India and the United States further. Mr. Ramdas of Bangalore Labs plans to relocate to Northern California so he can live among his customers. Mr. Soota's partner, Subroto Bagchi, also plans to move, to North Jersey, in two months.

"We see ourselves as a next-generation company that is neither Indian nor American," Mr. Bagchi said.

In recent years, the best engineers and programmers left India for the United States. But as India's industry has matured, émigrés are returning home to apply the lessons of the American market in local companies. In some cases, they bring home the culture as well.

At Customer Asset and other call centers, Indian trainers who have lived in the United States drill new employees in phonetics, American pop culture and colloquialisms.

"If you're hiring people for Citibank," said Gayatri Balaji, vice president for client services, "you want them to know that bulls and bears are not just different animals found in nature."

The regimen includes listening to the likes of "Friends" and "Ally McBeal" without the picture, and then reconstructing the dialogue. The new recruits are put through role-playing sessions in which the trainer, posing as a caller, interrogates them on American movies, sports and television programs.

At Customer Asset, employees are allowed to fashion their own telephone aliases and identities. Ms. Anthony chose "Naomi Morrison" because, she said, she has the same skin tone as the model Naomi Campbell and is a fan of the late Jim Morrison.

"If I gave people my Indian name, it would be too confusing," said Ms. Anthony, a 26-year-old from Cochin, a coastal city. "The whole intention is for them to understand us, and us to understand them."

And what happens if a caller asks too many questions?

"When the conversation goes too deeply into Chicago," Ms. Suman said, "you just ask politely, `Can we get back to business?' "

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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