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Shirking Trends?

Youngsters today are leaving behind promising pursuits lured by the fabled field of customer service. It's time for a reality check however, as the omnipresent call centres slowly turn into virtual sweatshops. No wonder the attrition rate at these centres is scaling new highs.

PRATHIBA Murdeshwar graduated with honours in sociology in 2003 with 78%, and being as she was a well-spoken accent-neutral young lady was made an offer by M/s Tchort CyberVision Pvt. Ltd to be a customer service executive at their call centre. She was in two minds. On the one hand she had secured admission to the School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi, for her post graduation, while on the other, the job offer stood temptingly on her dresser while she decided. Being a conscientious girl, Prathiba felt that her parents should begin to get a return on the investment they had made on her education, so she decided to accept the job.

The work was not hard for a girl with her accomplishments, but it was tiring and despite the odd hours, she found that she could cope quite competently. She worked eight hours a day, and as per her appointment letter she was picked up every day in an air conditioned car and dropped every evening. Though she was not the partying kind, her company would arrange get-togethers every fortnight at a resort so that her teammates and she could relax and enjoy themselves.

Then, one day ten months ago, Prathiba and her colleagues got a mail from the management congratulating them all for their contribution to the company's gain of the ISO certification for which it had been trying for several years. With this award, everybody in the company was given a 10% bonus that month with a rider that the company would need to be strict in the observance of its processes and systems. Everybody, including Prathiba, felt that this was only fair since they had all become better branded working as they were for an ISO-certified company. The very next month though, things began to change. While initially they were promised two half-days a week so that they could attend to personal work on weekdays, suddenly this was reduced to a single half day every week, thereby increasing the work-week to six and a half days. Also the time she needed to work when she was hired was eight hours and forty-five minutes every day (including the time taken off for a lunch break of half an hour and two seven-minute breaks for coffee). Post certification though, everybody was asked to work for an hour longer every day. To make matters worse, targets too were revised upward.

Initially, the performance requirement was to deliver a minimum of ten sales per month to cover the associate's salary every month. Now the basic minimum requirement went up to a minimum of one sale per day. If this target was not met for a month, a memo was sent to the defaulter and if this went on for three months, the associate was terminated.

Domain and Deputy Managers, as the supervisory cadre is called in M/s Tchort CyberVision Pvt. Ltd., fixed the target for each associate depending on the database provided to them. For instance, a `good' database of potential customers is called a `green', followed by Pink, Yellow and Red, where the last was the one with the least likely potential purchasers. `Green' associates were tasked to generate a minimum of 4.5 Sales Per Day (SPD), `Pink' - 3.5 SPD, `Yellow' 2.5 SPD and `Red' had to deliver 1.5 SPD. In the event associates were not able to achieve their targets, they were required to come in on their off days or their half-holidays and try and catch up.

After several months of seething unrest among the associates, the Vice President of the company, Mr. Perugam Venkatashastry Partha, announced the restitution of the two half days off promised initially. This was followed by a surprising announcement by the Domain Manager, Mr.Surender, that those associates that did not meet their targets would be forced to work on the re-instituted half days without signing in the attendance register so that they could catch up on their targets.

Being in the `yellow' classification, Prathiba needs to deliver 13 sales in 5 days, failing which she has to work through her two half days' off. Several colleagues now work all seven days of the week, all without making a record in the daily register. Furthermore, none of the half-days off are contiguous to discourage associates from leaving the city, with the result that Prathiba and other out-of-town colleagues cannot visit their parents at their hometowns. In the event she cannot deliver her weekly quota, she and her colleagues find themselves working seven days a week, often up to ten hours a day.

Even though Prathiba is not particularly nationalistic, her company does not let her colleagues and her enjoy a respite on national holidays and festivals, a fact that is rankling everybody. Mayday last week saw the entire workplace fully tenanted by associates that had not achieved their targets. In one shift, a deputy manager, Bishen, pressurises every associate to achieve one sale every two hours and if they don't, coffee breaks are cancelled. If they can't make the grade by dinnertime, they are not permitted to eat till they have achieved one more sale for the day.

Happy days and happy hours are now a myth, with associates not allowed to talk to a colleague, unless both have achieved two sales for the day.

While the draconian system is harsh, it is helping the company retain and exceed its targets regularly while complying with the ISO requirements. But these requirements also refer equally to the quality of working as well as the quality of product, something that this company has forgotten.

Matters are not likely to improve, since domain managers too are pressured into delivering results, and often make statements that associates are paid equitably. But are they? Every sale translates to Rs.100/- to an associate, from a total revenue of Rs.6000/- that accrues to the company. Of this Rs.100/-, Rs.40/- is deducted as `block sales', and so from the 11th sale to the 35th sale, the company disburses only Rs.60/- per sale. It must be remembered that the first ten sales are to the account of the salary paid, so if an associate manages 35 sales per month, the first ten go towards the salary, and the balance 25, the associates get only Rs.1500/-, while the revenue for this performance is Rs.150000/-! Naturally, the company tries to ensure, by every means at their disposal, including threats and punitive measures that every associate, including those in the `Red' category makes at least 35 sales per month. Equitable distribution of revenue? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But it seems odd that companies like M/s Tchort CyberVision Pvt. Ltd should get away with such strange practices - all in the name of ISO certification and national productivity. Quality of life is as important as quality of revenue. Oh, yes, and by the way, those fortnightly get-togethers? They don't happen anymore - who will attend - everybody is busy at their workstations catching up on their targets.

(The story above is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty. - Ed)

ABHIMANYU ACHARYA

abhi.hyd@cnkonline.com

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