India's BPO industry first caught our imagination over a decade ago with its world-class offices and relatively high starting salaries. But with the downsides of strange shift timings and stranger accents. How has it changed since then? As it lost its novelty value, the BPO world fell out of the headlines. Is the industry still flourishing in India or have protectionism, automation and competition from other countries hurt the famous Indian outsourcing industry?
In Bengaluru's Bellandur, in one of the glass and steel buildings of a tech park, we met Pooja B N. She is just 3 months into her first job. She is an adviser at the firm Firstsource and takes calls from the UK-based customers. She currently has a role that is most commonly identified with the BPO industry, which is answering calls from the customers abroad and handling issues in crisp English.
Pooja told NDTV, "I reach here by 1.30 pm. I end the shift at 11 pm or 11.30 pm." The late hours are definitely a concern for her family. "I'm a girl and the only girl of my parents. They are a little frightened but then they are happy with what I'm doing. They have an assurance that the people working here are absolutely safe. It's a good environment here," she said.
She admits that not everyone was impressed when she took up the job.
"You know how the Indian mindset is about the BPO. But then it is completely wrong. Yes, of course we receive calls and handle a lot of things, tension overloads. But then we overcome a lot of difficulties like sorting out the problems of the people and helping them with whatever the query they come up with - and bringing the smile on their face makes us feel very proud and happy about ourselves," she said.
Pooja has joined a workforce of over 1.1 million Indians in what is now known as the Business Process Management (BPM) industry.
Sixteen years ago, Vivek Irudayaraj also started off in the industry, right at the level of working the phone lines. Today he is a general manager (operations) at Firstsource Solutions Ltd. And his growth in many ways reflects the change in the industry itself.
Vivek remembered his early days, "I had a flavour for all this. So, I was lucky that I started with some good Irish customers. These were nicer people I was told. But then it moved to the UK costumers talking to people from different regions of the UK, therefore from an accent perspective if you are from London it different, if you are from Scotland it is different, from Wales it is different. But when it comes to BPO or the BPM now, we realise that it is not just speaking to the customers. There is so much value addition that is done, there is so much learning."
Voice-based interaction is giving way to chat, email and non-voice communication.But any kind of direct customer interaction now actually accounts for less than half of the jobs in BPM.
K S Vishwanathan, vice president of industry body Nasscom, has the data at his fingertips. He told NDTV "The BPM (erstwhile BPO) industry which it is called now employs close to 45-50% commerce and arts graduates. It also employs 10-15% people as engineers, about 8-10% are medical doctors, 10-12% people are PhD, and 8-10% are chartered accountants. The profile of people working in the industry from the time it started in 2000 to the date has completely transformed. Earlier people used to say that even if you are 12th pass, you could join the industry. Today if you want diversity, you can come and join the industry. In this, it has completely changed. Out of 1.1 million people close to about 4.5 lakh to 5 lakh are involved in customer interaction services. Close to about 45-50% are still in the customer interaction services and voice processing."
"61% of the revenue of the industry which is about $30 billion a year is built around complex transaction processing, complex financial accounting, analytics instead of the customers' interaction services capability," he added.
Rajesh Subramaniam, MD and CEO of Firstsource Solutions Ltd was one of the early players - having co-founded the company 16 years ago. He says, "India's edge in the industry then was largely about the availability of cheaper labour since salaries were a fraction of those in the West and the cost advantage was a big draw for international clients. But now it is about value addition - which also helps fight challenges from other BPM countries."
The quality of Indian employees also seems to be fighting protectionist moves in bigger markets. And automation is seen as just removing the duller and more routine parts of the jobs as the job description itself becomes more challenging. But attrition levels in the industry remain high.
Subramaniam said, "The level of attrition is high because it is stressful because you are as good as the last transaction you have done. And you know you work in the time zone your customer is in. So you know if it is a US shift, you could be doing things from 6 pm to 6 am or 9 am if it is a UK shift, it starts at about 2 pm, so there is a level of stress that sets in. For example at a level where people have a direct interaction with the clients, attrition rate could be high as 3 to 4% a month, but as you go higher in the supervisory role, the attrition level falls significantly."
But a notable difference from gloomy scenarios in other sectors is that the number of jobs continues to grow in this industry because India is number one in the world.
Vishwanathan said, "For example from last year to this year (2016-17) the BPM industry has added close to 90,000 to 1,00,000 people both in multinational corporations or doing the share service business and domestic service provider or providing the customer interaction service. It is an upward increase of 6-7% on a year-on-year basis."
He added, "We continue to be the world's number one global outsourcing destination. About 37% of total outsourcing market of BPM services is run by India. And the next 3-4 countries put together own less than that. Despite all the disruption, we have grown our market share by 1% year-on-year last year."
India is the clear global leader in a growing field. But the image of the BPM industry in India does not seem to have kept pace with reality.
Vishwanathan said, "My worry about biggest threat to me is the perception of the industry among the working force that it is a low-end of the job. Nasscom and its members are working on the stakeholders. and the biggest stakeholders are the parents of candidates. Second important stakeholders include college professors. They all believe that this industry is low-tech. How do we rework on the perception that this industry provides for the career orientation. You could join as a call centre executive and become vice president for process excellence. No other industry gives this capability."
The change in India's BPO industry is reflected in the name change from business process outsourcing to business process management. The basic interaction with customer is still there. But the bulk of the service provided is at a much higher level and it is this value-add which is keeping India at the top - globally - in this industry.