4.5.3 Working in call centres
Call centres, through which many of the service sector industries such as banks and insurance companies route all calls from customers, have become ubiquitous. Staff working in them frequently speak to customers according to pre-defined scripts (Goodman, 1996; Cameron, 2000), and nearly all aspects of communication with customers are prescribed (order of questions, terms of address, salutation and so on). Telecommunications technology allows incoming calls from any part of a country to be automatically redirected to call centres elsewhere, without the caller realising this. Some call centres serving British and American companies are located elsewhere, often in countries such as India which have a large pool of English-speaking graduates. In April 2001 the Financial Times reported how employees in India’s call centres, who deal primarily with callers from the USA, are trained to sound as if they are working just around the corner from the customer:
With low rupee costs and high dollar revenues, Indian call centres are about 40 per cent cheaper to run than US ones ...
In everything but pay, however, Indian call centres try to be the same as US ones. Foremost is the acquired accent of call centre workers. They are trained to speak like natives of, say, Texas or California because this is home for the millions of customers of the big US telecoms, healthcare and financial services groups that outsource their ‘customer response services’ to Indian companies.
The difficulty arises with people who have grown up speaking a vernacular tongue, such as Kannada, the language indigenous to the southern city of Bangalore, India’s software capital. Many south Indians unconsciously retreat into their own language, says Mr Aneesh Nair, managing director of the Bangalore’s Call Centre College, a private tutor for aspiring call centre workers. This ‘mother tongue interference’, he says, ‘can disrupt a conversation on a disputed insurance premium’.
The teaching at the colleges is designed to neutralise an existing accent rather than add a new one. English is broken down into phonetics and pupils are taught how an Indian and an American pronounce the same words, such as ‘value’. Indians render this as ‘walue’, leading to a costly failure of communications with a US client in a telemarketing campaign. Computer based tuition is a large part of the four week training, with courses designed by US language specialists.
There are clearly tensions here for the call centre staff: on the one hand technology brings employment possibilities with it; on the other, staff pay a price in terms of having to neutralise their accent (and with it an aspect of their social identity). As well as permitting the existence of such businesses, technology is also used in staff training. Staff are taught about US culture:
Employees are expected to have conversations that enhance the US client’s relationship with the customer. They should know that snow is rare in Florida – and therefore not to ask a Florida caller about winter clothes – as well as be informed about bearish sentiment on the Nasdaq.
Claims about the democratisation of design, and control over how we communicate, are difficult to square with the demands made of some call centre staff. Their language use, and in the example described above, even their accent, is strictly prescribed and rigidly controlled.