By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
GURGAON, India -- With her flowing, hot-pink Indian 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 center, phoning hundreds of Americans a day and politely asking them to pay up. As the U.S. 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 of outsourcing in India that is still hiring aggressively.
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. I'm flat broke."
"Ma'am, I am here to help you," Chaturvedi calmly said. "Ma'am, 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 centers, where ambitious young Indians with fake American accents and American noms de phone spend hours calling people in Indiana or Maine to help navigate software glitches, plan vacations or sell products. The subculture of call centers 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 call center outside New Delhi 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," said Chaturvedi, raising her eyebrows in shock. "These days the situation is so emotional, so fragile. We have to have so much empathy and patience."
"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 BPO Services. But now they seem depressed, defeated. Even the men sob into the phone, several agents said.
Under the pseudonym Carol Miller, Chaturvedi's ability to deftly work around the standard line, "The check is in the mail," is now being challenged by clients throwing out new responses: "How do you expect me to pay? This is the worst crisis since the Great Depression."
Chaturvedi said she has never seen it so bad. Many of the young employees say they are flabbergasted at just how widespread the financial ruin appears to be.
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."