India call centres hear US pain
GURGAON, October 15 With her flowing, hot-pink suit, jangly silver bangles and perky voice, Bhumika Chaturvedi, 24, doesn’t fit the stereotype of a thuggish, heard-it-all-before debt collector. But lately, she has had no problem making American debtors cry.
For the past three years, Chaturvedi has been a top collection agent at her call centre, phoning hundreds of Americans every day and politely asking them to pay up. As the US financial crisis plunges Americans into debt, her business is one of the fastest growing sectors in Indian outsourcing. It is also one of the few sectors that is aggressively hiring.
Sitting in a narrow cubicle, her head-set switched on, Chaturvedi listens every night to increasingly disturbing tales of woe from the other side of the globe.
“My mortgage payments are just too high, honey. I just can’t make the payment this month,” a weeping woman with a Southern accent recently told her in response to a call for a $200 credit card payment. “I’m sure y’all heard about the credit crunch and gas prices.
“Ma’am, I am here to help you,” Chaturvedi said. “Maybe you could make a small payment, $100 or $50, anything that you can.”
Few places in India absorb and imitate American culture as much as call centres, where ambitious young Indians with fake American accents spend hours calling people in Indiana or Maine to help navigate software glitches, plan vacations or sell products. The subculture of call centres tends to foster a cult of America, an over-the-top fantasy where hopes and dreams are easily accomplished by people who live in a brand-name wonderland of high-paying jobs, big houses and luxury getaways.
But collection agents at this particular call centre in Gurgaon are starting to see the flip side of that vision: a country hobbled by debt and filled with people scared of losing their jobs, their houses and their cars. “Lately, 25-year-old Americans are telling me that they are declaring themselves bankrupt. We have to have so much empathy and patience “ said Chaturvedi, raising her eyebrows in shock.
“It’s like people are totally drowning,” said Omkar Gadgil, 24, who goes by the alias Richard Rudy and was a math major in college. He is brainy and considered the office expert on the intricacies of debt collection. “There has just been years of overspending and now: the crash.”
In the past, debt-saddled customers were often annoyed by Chaturvedi’s calls from the open-air office at Aegis...