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BPO: Myths and reality

By Zia Sheikh
September 01, 2004 07:09 IST
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There are many perceptions (and misconceptions) about the business process outsourcing industry and, especially, the international voice-based call centre industry. While there are many perceptions that are true, there are a lot of myths as well that have little connection to actual ground realities.

The Truth

  • BPOs offer top class compensation and faster growth in packages than almost any other industry in India today.
  • BPOs enable youngsters to have fast-track careers, with higher levels of responsibility being delegated at fairly early stages in their careers.
  • Voice-based real-time customer support work involves making key lifestyle choices with odd hours thanks to the time difference with clients in the US/UK.
  • There is high level of accountability in BPOs as everything gets measured, starting from working hours to key deliverables such as customer satisfaction, call handle time, etc.
  • Being a process-oriented industry, it involves doing similar things repeatedly, often leading to monotony as BPOs strive for greater efficiency and effectiveness through specialisation.
  • The industry is largely dominated by youngsters between 20 and 25 years for agents and 25 and 30 years for most middle management.
Myths Realities
BPO is another dotcom phenomena and all the euphoria is going to be short-lived, with the current boom ending in a bust. BPO is a well-established industry built on solid infrastructure of people, processes and technology than the marketing hype that drove the dotcom boom.
As the BPO euphoria dies down, most jobs will be at risk and are likely to get eliminated. BPOs have existed in the Western world for many years, employing a phenomenal three per cent of the US and UK working population. It's highly improbable that the current jobs being created in India will be eliminated.
India is losing its competitive advantage and countries like China and Russia will snatch most of the future growth in BPO. While it is true that salaries in the BPO industry in India are rising rapidly, the industry is currently confined to the main metros. As second tier cities emerge, India has enough manpower to retain competitiveness for many years to come. Also, countries like China and Russia have a long way to go in English proficiency.
As the US political backlash against India intensifies, the Philippines is emerging as the preferred off-shoring destination for US corporations. Election year in the US has made offshore outsourcing a major political issue. But companies are still outsourcing in huge numbers to India. This offers greater depth and breadth of skill sets than competing countries like the Philippines.
There are significant quality issues facing India, resulting in many companies like Dell, Lehman Brothers and Microsoft withdrawing their business from the country. Some companies have pulled back business from India. But such instances are few and far between. In fact, many of these companies have subsequently sent more work to India, despite initially withdrawing some business.
There is huge attrition in Indian BPOs because the workforce is frustrated with their jobs and unable to work odd hours (night shifts) for long periods of time. The reason for high attrition in call centres is more because of poaching by competitor BPOs by offering higher salaries and/or designations. In fact, rather than leaving the industry, most youngsters are busy job-hopping due to the tremendous opportunities available within the industry. The difficulties associated with night shifts are highly exaggerated.
There are limited career opportunities within the call centre/BPO industry; roles are limited to customer service agents and team leaders. The BPO industry offers a huge range of job roles in varied functions like quality, human resource, finance, IT, project management, training, facilities management, etc.
Most BPOs in India tend to exploit their workforce, forcing them into monotonous jobs with few facilities or benefits. BPOs in India are today attracting the best talent from various industries, including hospitality, financial services, retail, travel, etc. This is largely because of better packages and benefits being offered by BPOs. Examples: home pick-up and drops, medical insurance, recreational facilities, range of rewards and recognition schemes.
Working in an IT enabled services environment results in various health-related ailments associated with working for long hours on computers or talking for long hours on the phone. Almost all jobs today involve working on computers or talking for long hours on the phone. In fact, BPOs tend to be more careful about proper ergonomics, acoustics and overall workplace environment than most other companies.
Working in BPOs tends to restrict future job prospects. There are limited opportunities to pursue a career outside the industry. BPOs provide their people with invaluable international exposure of working for leading global companies. Also, the skills developed while working at call centres (ex communication abilities, process-orientation, domain knowledge, etc), are highly desirable, cutting across industries in India and overseas.
Most employees treat call centres and BPOs as a short-term career option, good for earning a quick buck but not for building a long-term career. On the contrary, most employees are building a long-term career in the industry. In fact, BPOs are attracting the best talent from other industries that are not able to offer similar compensation and career growth options.

Zia Sheikh is the CEO, Infowavz International, a leading offshore business process outsourcing firm.

Image: Uttam Ghosh

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Zia Sheikh