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At Indian Call Centers, Another View of U.S.

The Aegis call center in India hums with activity. As the U.S. economy drops, outsourced debt collection booms.
The Aegis call center in India hums with activity. As the U.S. economy drops, outsourced debt collection booms. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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Talking to so many anguished Americans has taught these agents an important lesson: Live within your means. Agents with credit cards are vowing to pay them off every month, even during the upcoming holiday shopping season, when malls feature neon signs advertising flat-screen TVs and air conditioners.

Managers of this call center say they have recently added a seminar on the economic crisis, with PowerPoint slides that graph the financial mess as well as updates on other events that could affect the ability of U.S. debtors to pay their bills, including natural disasters such as Hurricane Ike. The presentation is intended to enable collection agents to bond with their clients, and possibly deflect their excuses.

Since the crisis began, agents have seen call times shoot up dramatically because late payers often want to talk more. More callers have moved. More phones have been disconnected. Clients have started bargaining with agents for discounts on their debts "as if they were haggling at an Indian vegetable market," said Rhoit Chug, assistant vice president of training for Aegis.

India handles an estimated $16 billion -- or about 5 percent -- of delinquent U.S. accounts. More complicated health insurance bills and mortgage payments are still largely handled inside the United States, industry executives say.

But the debt collection business will continue to grow as debt rises and companies look to cut costs, industry experts said. Aegis, which handles nearly a fourth of debt collection outsourced from the United States, is undergoing a rapid expansion. The company is erecting a second office building for 5,000 employees, many of them to be hired over the next few years. Most employees are college-educated and in their 20s. They earn about $5,000 a year, a competitive starting salary in India, but less than a fourth of what their American counterparts make.

Inside the Aegis call center, there is a clean, colorful cafeteria with round tables and darts to relieve stress. Because New Delhi is about 10 hours ahead of the eastern United States, there is an espresso machine and candy counter to keep the young workers awake while calling through India's night.

Aparup Sengupta, global chief executive officer and managing director of Aegis, encourages his debt collectors to use a "hospitable Indian touch," meaning less arm-twisting and more emotional therapy.

"This business is a performing art," Sengupta said. "We are part therapists because the core of the issue is that every human being wants to be honorable in life. We don't just push someone into a bad situation. We try to create a real solution."

Decorating the office are dozens of yellow smiley faces with the words, "Happy People. Happy Customers. Happy Investors," along with other posters that read: "Connect and Collect."

"How is the car running?" asked Parul Malhotra, 25, who goes by the alias Michelle Jones.

"It's a real piece of junk," the customer shot back, his voice registering more depression than anger. "It was in the shop. The electric's all messed up. And I have no money now. Plus, we have an illness in the family."

"Times are hard. I wish for everyone a speedy recovery," said Malhotra, trying to be cheerful. After a pause, she got back to business: "But let's try to work out a payment."

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