London, Feb. 19: “Hello, is that directory enquiries'”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“You sound very close.”
“Can I help you, sir'”
“Can I have a number for the Blue Fox, please'”
“Certainly, sir. Which town'”
“We have 17 Blue Foxes. Do you have a street'”
“No, I don’t... it’s near Soho... meeting some friends there for a drink...”
“I think this is your number, sir...”
“Can I ask you something'”
“Yes, of course...”
“I don’t know you or anything but you sound awfully nice. I wish all operators
were as polite as you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I say I hope you don’t think I’m being forward or anything but why don’t you meet me for a drink. Call it male intuition...”
“We are not allowed to... By the way, where are you calling from, sir'”
“Then, as much as I would like to, I definitely can’t meet you...”
“Because I am in Calcutta.”
This is precisely the kind of conversation that trade unions at British Telecom wish to prevent. It is not that they are against cultural mixing or anything like that but angry staff have warned that they will go on strike if BT work is outsourced to call centres in India.
Their uncompromising mood was reflected in today’s Daily Mail front page headline, ‘Calling India!’, and the strapline, ‘Anger over BT plan to move directory enquiries abroad’. Over the past few years, many companies, notably banks, airlines and financial institutions, have shifted customer handling to call centres in India, where software engineers and Indian proficiency with the English language have made all this possible.
The reason given is that “Indian staff are much cheaper”, while another reason —“Indian staff are much better” — is seldom stressed.
But the BT management’s decision to consider moving as vital a service as directory enquiries — this is done by dialling 192 from anywhere in the UK — could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, or, in this case, leads to an all-out strike.
According to industrial relations experts, “hundreds of British jobs could go, and there is concern that the service could suffer from a lack of local knowledge among staff”.
This is not strictly true since call centres situated in Glasgow, hundreds of miles away from the capital, routinely deal with enquiries from and about London.
However, union officials are “considering industrial action to block the move”.
The problem is that BT also has a duty to its shareholders, who have seen their shares in what was once a blue chip company lose a tenth of their value within three years.
The plan to outsource to India is said to be “a cost-cutting measure to help BT compete after the opening up of the old 192 system to rival companies. It follows a trend established by High Street banks and other firms to move centres to the sub-continent, where wages and costs are much lower”.
But the Communications Workers Union says 700 jobs are at risk from the 2,500 staff who work in call centres across the country.
The management emphasises that the proposal is at an early stage. A spokesman said: “It is true that we are considering whether to establish contact centres in India but we have not made a final decision. The jobs of people working for BT are best protected in the longer term if the company remains competitive and successful.”
No one has suggested that Indian accents may cause difficulty. Bill Mieran, chairman of the Telecommunications Users’ Association, said: “The Indian operators are likely to be highly trained to graduate level. They will be better qualified than people doing the job in this country.”
If Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is smart, he should put a high-level official on the next plane to London to lobby BT to locate the call centre in Calcutta. There is, after all, a Blue Fox in Calcutta, too.