JUNE 6, 2004
 Cover Story
 Personal Finance
 BT Special
 Back of the Book

Market Research Jitters
The big market research (MR) problem: people, when asked, often tell you what they think you want to hear rather than what they really think.

Maggi Five
Say 'Maggi', you get '2 minutes' in response. But the brand is talking '5' all of a sudden.

More Net Specials
Business Today,  May 23, 2004
Breaking Age Barriers

India's BPO units have discovered the power of greying hair-and are recruiting more.

Back to the future: Older additions, Kosha Wagh, 39 (left) and Sabina Hill, 38 (far right), hit it off with the BPO smart-set

If you are on the greyer side of 35... or 40... or older... and are serious about switching professions-or even thinking of entering the workforce for the first time-then don't let age hold you back. A new career path has just opened up. In call centres.

The good news is that you would be welcomed. Kosha Wagh, 39, mother of two teenage sons, made the transition from teaching to working the telephones for a living, and is much the happier for it. "I have no problems gelling with the young crowd and with young guys teaching me the ropes," confesses Wagh, who works at EXL Service, a Noida-based call centre that pioneered the recruiting of older people in an industry crawling with twenty-somethings.

'Age No Bar' said the ad in the newspaper. Sabina Hill, 38, took it at its word, and joined EXL. "I'm 38, a divorcee and have a married daughter," she says, by way of introduction. Hill, who also has a 16-year-old son, joined the company to earn a living. Period. And believe it or not, she actually counts a mother-daughter-son trio as her colleagues.

Greying Garrulously

The interesting part is that BPO units are actually beginning to prefer tufts of grey rather than black hair under their call-response headsets. Older folk are in demand. "The attrition rate in call centres is absurdly high," reasons Rajarshi Sengupta, Executive Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), "So these companies are trying out new things to see if normalcy can be restored to the proceedings."

Job hoppers pose a big headache to recruiters. They play havoc with manpower planning. For all the industry's retention efforts, the call centre average rate of attrition remains alarmingly high at about 40 per cent every year. With expansion taken into account, that means having to train more than half the staff from scratch every 12 months. For people above 35, however, the attrition rate barely touches 8-10 per cent. Granted, this figure is not calculated for a large enough base to be significant, but there are intuitive reasons to expect older people to stay put for longer.

"These older people know the hardships involved in getting a new job, so they are a lot more stable," says Navanit, coo of the Mumbai-based call centre Epicenter. "They don't hop, skip and jump for that extra grand in pay," adds a team leader at a call centre.

"Basically, different BPO firms are trying to experiment with different models, whether it's hiring older people or part-timers," says Prakash Gurbaxani, CEO of Transworks, which employs more than 2,200 people at its centres in Mumbai and Bangalore.

But the pioneer puts a slightly different spin on its efforts. "We decided on the 'age no bar' policy to expand the talent pool," says Deepak Dhawan, Vice President, hr, EXL Service. "The job is all about competencies, and not about age," he adds. The skillsets of older recruits include maturity, empathy and the ability to smoothen ruffled feathers.

Older recruits bring in skillsets such as maturity, empathy and the ability to smoothen ruffled feathers

Chaos And Chemistry

But what about workplace chemistry? Are older employees comfortable working with, and reporting to, colleagues half their age? Wagh recalls her embarrassment at being called 'aunty'. "My name is Kosha," she shot back, "and I would appreciate you calling me by my name." Nonetheless, Wagh has since emerged as the agony aunt of the team, and finds herself advising her younger colleagues on "guy problems".

Hill's experience was slightly different: her team-mates helped her gain confidence. "When I joined after three months of rigorous training," she says, "my team leader looked apprehensive, but today, there's relief on his face." And the team leader's account? "According to the feedback I had received," he says, "she was shy and kept to herself. Since the team is like an extended family, it's important for members to get along." Hill now enjoys working with a crew of average age 22.

Dhawan concedes cases of older folk taking unkindly to being pulled up by younger team leaders, but adds, "Indians understand and know how to deal with their elders, and this translates into equilibrium in the workplace."

What about efficiency? "In terms of performance, there is no latitude given for age," says Dhawan, "just a natural regard for their seniority." Says Navanit, "They may take some time to actually become productive, but once they get there, they are much more stable and can handle pressure and stress much better. They also have a stabilising effect on youngsters." Wagh "could hear her brains creaking" during training, but is comfortable now.

So, would you like to sign on? "Most of our older employees are people who've taken VRS from PSU banks or oil companies," says Navanit, "We also have housewives applying for jobs." The money's quite good, too, and salaries can double in three years for star performers. Of course, the fun of it could be reason enough.

Trouble-shooting: Pros like Shikha Sharma are in demand

Diet Advisors

Corporate honchos need specialised advice all the time, especially when they're so busy feeding their minds that they neglect what they're stuffing their bellies with-and end up with acidity, blood pressure and diabetes. Pre-emtive opportunity for nutritionists? You bet. "Because food can retard disease and alter performance," says nutritionist Naini Setalvad, who takes the client's genetic details, stress level and metabolic rate into account before offering her dietary counsel. Thankfully, CEOs are learning to manage their bodies too, and are talking calories, fibrous intake and so on. How to become a nutritionist? Get professional training, advises nutritionist Shikha Sharma, and keep in touch with developments. Read. Remember, body-conscious CEOs will be reading too.

Help, Tarun!

I am an area sales manager with a machine tools marketing company. I am 44 years old and have a masters diploma in business administration along with a degree in mechanical engineering. I see little opportunity for growth in my present place of employment. One reason for this is that I do not get along well with my department head. I rarely agree with him on anything and feel he does not have the strategic vision his possition requires. Recently, I also came to know that a subordinate is being paid a salary that is higher than mine. When I took up the matter with my superior, he told me I could leave if I had a problem with the way things were. What should I do?

What your boss has given you is often referred to as an ultimatum. You need to make up your mind whether to do whatever it takes to fit in with what your department head has in mind, or to simply quit. Another thing you could try taking your problems up with the top management. There is always the likelihood that they may agree with you. If that doesn't work, start looking for another job. And while you go about it, try introspecting a bit: did you focus as much on your work as you did on the other issues? If not, then the problem is not as much with others as you imagine.

I am a 25-year-old management graduate working with a call centre for four years now. I have little prospects for growth in my present job and am thoroughly dissatisfied. I want to move to a BPO firm that offers better opportunities for growth. However, many of the big companies in my industry have formed a cartel to discourage job-hopping. This policy, I feel, is unfair to poorly compensated execs like me. Should I leave the sector and look for a job in a different industry?

Employers forming a cartel of the sort you mention is unfair, but frankly, there is little you can about it. However, it would still be premature on your part to think in terms of leaving the industry. You need to look for BPO firms other than the ones that have formed a cartel that would be willing to hire you on much better terms. Then again, it may not be such a bad idea to explore your options in other sectors with a view to diversifying your own skill sets.

I am a first-class graduate from an engineering college in Nagpur. I put in seven years with an IT firm as a customer support engineer, after which the firm shut shop and left me jobless. Since I could not land a suitable job, I decided to try my hand at an IT business with a friend. We did well for six years, till my friend decided to quit the business. Since my friend had been handling the front end of the business, I found it very difficult to retain my client base. My financial position has become increasingly precarious. I am now considering looking for a job. Will I get one after having run my own business for almost six years? Or should I go in for additional educational qualifications?

Instead of being a handicap, the experience you have had running your own business will be considered valuable by any it or it-related company worth its name. So it would not be very difficult for you to find a job in customer service, sales or any other related function where you have had prior experience. An alternative for you could be doing an MBA from a good B-school. With your experience and the MBA degree, your job prospects would definitely improve.

I am a 45-year-old engineer working with a telecom PSU for the past 25 years and am fairly senior in my organisation. Recently, I got an offer from a private sector telecom major to work as a senior consultant with them. The salary, perks and the position they are offering are all that I ever dreamt of. My colleagues, however, are discouraging me to make the switch saying that post-retirement benefits and job security are greater in PSUs. What should I do, considering that I cannot afford to remain unemployed any time within the next five to seven years because of family liabilities?

There's no such thing as a perfect job. To get the pay and perks of the private sector, you have to give up job security. You have to decide whether you are suited personality-wise for the private sector after working in the public sector for 25 years. You also need to consider whether the increase in salary would compensate for the relative lack of job security. Moving to the private sector is not necessarily such a bad thing, but if security is your greatest need, stay put in the PSU.

Answers to your career concerns are contributed by Tarun Sheth (Senior Consultant) and Shilpa Sheth (Managing Partner, US practice) of HR firm, Shilputsi Consultants. Write to Help,Tarun! c/o Business Today, Videocon Tower, Fifth Floor, E-1, Jhandewalan Extn., New Delhi-110055.

Finishing Counts
Finishing schools for business etiquette.

Stooping to conquer: Look ma, I've got the idea

Grace? What's grace got to do with business? Lots, it turns out, in this globalised era. A Harvard study, in fact, grants it a big role-bigger than technical skills-in career advancement and the clinching of business deals. And it's not as simple as knowing not to reserve vermouth wines for after dinner, or following HSBC's 'local knowledge' campaign to avoid being offensive in an unfamiliar setting.

No surprise, then, that etiquette consultants are in demand-for top execs. "Their need for secrecy can often push the training sessions to five in the morning or well past midnight," says Pria Warrick, Executive Director, Forever Spring, an etiquette-training school in Delhi. And what is it that they mostly lack? Dining etiquette. Dress sense, too. Some even need help on how to convey condolence messages. It costs some Rs 5,000 to 10,000 per session, and clients can structure their own training packages.

Sabira Merchant and Gautam Reddy are among the other names offering etiquette workshops for corporates. Clubby as it sounds, it does help-though try catching a ceo admit it. That would be beyond decorum.

Sensa Humour
Training call centre agents to get tickled.

Tickled pink: They're kinda gettin' people close

If you find mirth levels in some quarters louder than normal-don't be aghast. It's probably a BPO training session: on cottoning on to the American sense of humour (part of the Voice and Accent training module at many a call centre). The reason? Being accent-okay is not enough; rapport counts. "Most Indians have neutralised accents," says John James, Manager (Training), Global Vantedge, "but they need to know the differences and similarities that they have with another culture."

Recommended homework? Watching wholesome American entertainment-from Friends reruns and Jay Leno to films like Jerry McGuire, Dogma and Catch Me If You Can (this one educates agents on social security checks and frauds, too). Watching CNN? Well, that too, for broad familiarisation. So when a caller goes, "Hey-what's that noise, are ya in Vietnam or Iraq or somethin'?" or "You sound kinda young-like you're n-n-n-n-nineteen", you had better get the reference(Vietnam war, silly). And a "Gee, no, we've already been liberated-by a G for Gandhi, not G.I.," will not do by way of response.




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