India’s outsourcing giants — faced with rising wages at home — have looked for growth opportunities in the United States. But with Washington crimping visas for visiting Indian workers, some companies such as Aegis are slowly hiring workers in North America, where their largest corporate customers are based. In this evolution, outsourcing has come home.
Capuana, a manager for Aegis in New York, motivates this U.S. office with dress-down days and the prospect that workers could, one day, earn a stint training call center workers in Goa, India. One of his tasks is to staff 176 cubicles, where workers make or take calls for customers of prescription drug plans or Medicare contracts and enter and verify information. The pay runs $12 to $14 an hour, with bonus checks of up to $730 a month.
“Our recruitment model is simple,” says Capuana, who played Division III college football, wears rosary beads on his wrist and has a picture of Jesus above his desk. “I don’t care if you come from Park Avenue or the park bench. If you can do the job, we want you.”
Aegis, a subsidiary of India’s Essar Group, an energy, telecom and metals conglomerate, says it’s pioneering the next generation of outsourcing: putting the work close to its global customers. Its executives call the practice “near-sourcing,” “diverse shoring” and, sometimes, “cross-shoring.”
Madhu Vuppuluri, chief executive and dealmaker for the Americas division of Essar Group, remembers watching outsourcing grow in India in the late 1990s and early 2000s and thinking that the decline of U.S. call centers was overdone. He persuaded the billionaire Ruia brothers, Essar’s Indian owners, to let him make a counterintuitive bet: In 2000, he bid on the bankrupt assets of Telequestion, a 500-person call center in Arlington, Tex., for $2.5 million.
That led to other acquisitions in the United States and abroad. Today, Aegis employs 50,000 of Essar’s 70,000 employees on several continents. About 5,000 people work at nine U.S. call centers. Aegis, which is on the hunt for more acquisitions, has said it aims to triple its U.S. head count, to more than 15,000.
The strategy is based on the old-fashioned idea of being close to your customers. It’s one embraced by companies such as credit card giant American Express, insurer Humana and government agencies, which sometimes prefer on-shore call centers to handle customer service for sensitive life insurance, financial or health-care products.
“The customer is the king,” Vuppuluri said. “Wherever the customer wants the services to be, we can provide.”
Visitors on visas
At its U.S. sites, Aegis says, 90 percent or more of its workers are American. In that way, Aegis is an exception to the rule. Until now, India-based outsourcing companies have largely brought Indian workers into the United States using H-1B visas and L-1 visas and have been the heaviest users of those programs.