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October 2001

Passage To More Than India


I see O year in you the vast terraqueous globe given and giving all,
Europe to Asia, Africa join'd, and they to the New World,
The lands, geographies, dancing before you, holding a festival garland,
As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand.

Walt Whitman
Passage To India
ll. 120-124

In "Passage To India," Whitman was celebrating not only the great communications accomplishments of the 19th century, the laying of the Atlantic and Pacific cables, the joining of the transcontinental railroad in the United States and the opening of the Suez Canal, but also the spiritual effects the opening of these communications channels would have on the world. For Whitman, the fulfillment of Columbus' dream, of easy commerce to India, should lead to more than just trade, it should lead to a spiritual awakening that comes when communication around the world leads to a free exchange of knowledge and the recognition of common human yearnings, desires and needs, breaking down the age-old barriers of distance and ignorance. This dream is closer to fulfillment now that the Web is worldwide, making nearly instantaneous the transferring of voice and data, words and ideas, from anywhere to anywhere in the world.

Taking advantage of the opportunities of global communications, several companies have started up in the past few years that are drawing on India's vast population and resulting large numbers of well-educated technology experts to provide support. As much software development has been successfully outsourced to India since the '90s, one barrier to acceptance has already come down, and telephony and data costs are falling as India moves toward privatization in those areas. Following are brief descriptions of some of the companies providing contact center services from India.

I recently spoke with Jai Gupta, CEO of Verette, Inc., about Verette's operations. Verette is headquartered in Livermore, California, with its contact center located in Mumbai, India, connected by Verette's DVI (digital voice infrastructure) end-to-end dedicated circuits via IPLC (International Private Leased Circuit), which improves the quality of VoIP calls (and the quality was certainly high for the call I received from their contact center in Mumbai). While I was on that call, I was also logged in to their Web demo, guided through the site by a very pleasant CSR, Kaizad Sidhwa, a commerce graduate from Mumbai University (who was polite to the point of not mentioning the spelling errors in my typing during our Web chat session [Verette uses Cisco's WebLine product for chat, page pushing, form filling and co-browsing]).

Gupta stressed the importance Verette places on not only the company's infrastructure (for which it has partnered with AT&T, Cisco, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Telera), but also on the quality and training of its agents. Verette provides its agents with a four-component training program, which consists of product-specific training, America 101 (people, geography, sports, etc.), accent training (where the agents listen to tapes and watch American TV shows) and customer service 101. The initial training time is two weeks, and product-specific training runs from six to eight weeks.

Gupta said Verette strives to mold itself to provide the touch and feel of what its clients have in the U.S., and train on the client's tools so they can use them in the program. For each client, Verette builds a dedicated team and matches agent skills to each program. Gupta told me that upfront setup costs are low for clients, and they can have a client's program up and running in six to eight weeks.

Sidhwa told me Verette believes in complete customer satisfaction, but Gupta said that over and above that, Verette looks to improve their employees' skills and their quality of life. Gupta added that Verette is looking to expand its client base to Europe, Asia/Pacific and South and Central America.

MphasiS-BFL designs and builds information technology architecture for Fortune 500 companies that are custom-tailored for financial, retail and technology industries using a variety of applications. Its 1,400 engineers develop systems that share the same customer information across branch offices, customer service centers, call centers and Web-based interfaces. With this expertise in systems integration, it seems only natural that MphasiS-BFL would go into the outsourced contact center services field, as it has through its subsidiary, MsourcE Corp.

Jaitirth "Jerry" Rao, chairman and CEO of MphasiS and chairman of MsourcE, told me about MsourcE's operations in its two contact centers in India, one in Bangalore and one in Pune. Each center has approximately 200 agents and is staffed 24/7. Rao said that all agents at MsourcE are college graduates and receive four to six weeks of initial training that includes accent training, customer service and technology. Agents undergo a broad spectrum of training, from online to classroom to viewing films and TV programming from the U.S. Whenever possible, the agents are trained specifically on the client's business at a client's headquarters so the agents are able to provide complete and in-depth answers to inquiries. Attesting to the quality procedures at MsourcE, its Pune center has received ISO 9001-2000 quality standard certification.

Rao said MsourcE has two interconnected telecom centers in the U.S., one in California and one in Texas, which are linked to the two Indian centers through IPLC terrestrial fiber and satellite links to ensure multiple redundancies.

MsourcE provides inbound and outbound telephony services, e-mail response, text chat and VoIP support from Web sites. MsourcE's first step for its clients is to perform an eCRM needs analysis so it can develop a strategy capable of engaging automated support that escalates to live help as needed.

Providing additional customer reach for MsourcE and its clients is the Oxelis eSupport Console from Oxelis, Inc. The eSupport Console, which can be deployed on Web sites or sent with e-mail, provides users with multimedia previews to educate users about site features or the products or services a company provides. The eSupport Console also gives the user FAQ features, as well as the ability to escalate to live help through text chat or VoIP. According to Madhu Vijayan, president and CEO of Oxelis, these features allow the eSupport Console to "deliver the right service to the right person at the right time."

24/7 Customer.com
24/7 Customer.com has its contact center in the International Technology Park in Bangalore, which has various facilities for employees such as workout and health facilities. Onsite they have 100 percent uptime data connectivity and stand-alone power. In fact, when earthquakes hit India last year, 24/7 Customer.com allowed other companies to use their facilities. Its corporate headquarters in Los Gatos, California and its operations center in Bangalore are connected through a VSNL earth station with IPLC connectivity and has an uninterrupted power supply.

Sudhakar "Sid" Kosaraju, vice president of development and marketing, 24/7 Customer.com told me that companies are rethinking their strategies because of the global slowdown, and for many, their first thought is to look to India. "For them," he continued, "24/7 Customer.com can offer a higher skill level and lower costs. The advent of a large software development industry in India in the 1990s has given many a high level of comfort in outsourcing other services to India." In the case of 24/7 Customer.com, over the past year their services have done a complete turnaround, from a 30/70 ratio of voice services to e-mail and chat last year, to 70 percent voice and 30 percent e-mail and chat this year. The company recently recorded its 1,000,000th customer service query for 2001, and expects to handle 1,000,000 more by the end of the year.

24/7 Customer.com handles all types of programs for their clients, such as customer service, financial services, retail and tech support. Kosaraju said that in clients, they look to have long-term contracts with Global 500-level companies, and for those clients they can provide both inbound and outbound services, and perform cross-selling and upselling as well.

The company has recently been awarded ISO 9002 certification and its Bangalore inbound customer service operation has secured the highest Baseline Assessment score earned to date by any organization using the COPC-2000 Standard (Release 3.1) from COPC.

At present, 24/7 Customer.com has 350 seats and 300 agents, half of whom have master's degrees and all of whom have BA degrees. 24/7 Customer.com's agents work in teams dedicated to a single customer's business.

Among the customers are AltaVista, Rediff.com and Shutterfly, as well as recent customers that include a large global telecom provider, a large financial services provider, a large car reservations company and a large hotel chain.

CustomerAsset.com, headquartered in Bangalore and with offices in the U.S. and the U.K. as well, is a joint venture between SOFTBANK, ePartners (News Corporation) and P K Mittal (Ispat Group). Raghu Krishnaiah, chief of U.S. operations for CustomerAsset.com, provided me details about the operations of CustomerAsset.com and its eCRM offerings in outsourced customer interaction, outbound telesales, inbound customer service, data mining, database marketing and campaign management.

After a screening process that includes written and verbal skills testing, agents go through an initial three-and-a-half-week training program. Krishnaiah stressed that CustomerAsset.com hires only people with college degrees and two years of work experience in the field. Krishnaiah said an advantage of India over the U.S. is that it is difficult to cost-effectively find people in the U.S. who can cross-sell as well as perform customer service.

Krishnaiah said that CustomerAsset.com is run and operated like a U.S. company, and offers a quality of service guarantee. As part of its overall business strategy, it is looking to partner with CRM software dealers. As part of its CRM offerings, agents have a complete history of a customer's interactions with the client, whether it is Web, e-mail, fax or voice. Krishnaiah added that they try to reduce the number of agents needed to handle the work so that clients increase margins 30 to 40 percent.

CustomerAsset.com has two centers in Bangalore, with dedicated fiber optic circuits through AT&T and MCI for voice and data streaming, carrier-class automatic call distributors (ACDs) and multiplexers with built-in redundancy; customer care specialists use Dell PCs, IBM thin clients and IBM Netfinity servers and agent desktops connect to virtual LANs through Intel switches to ensure confidentiality. Krishnaiah said that clients are separated both physically and technologically in the centers. CustomerAsset.com plans to have a 5,000-seat capacity by the end of 2003. They also recently acquired TeleWeb Worldwide, a Denver-based company that was primarily focused on outsourced customer service and sales to India from U.S. telecommunications companies.

C-Cubed Solutions
Headquartered in Los Angeles, C-Cubed Solutions provides live sales and support help for its clients from its center in Bangalore. Steve Durham, COO of C-Cubed Solutions, explained that they provide live sales help and customer service through e-mail and text chat for their clients. Durham said all of C-Cubed Solutions' 140 CSRs are college graduates and are Oracle- and Microsoft-qualified and are well-trained on the eshare software they use in their contact center.

"We want to give clients a level of acceptability -- they can put us on hiatus or ratchet our services up or down," said Durham. For potential clients, C-Cubed Solutions will put together an interim knowledge base from a company's Web pages. C-Cubed uses this interim knowledge base to provide a gap analysis to show the potential clients how they can improve upon or extend the services that the potential clients are currently giving their customers. Durham added that C-Cubed provides its clients consistency, speed and provides a skill set that is uniform and measured.

According to Durham, C-Cubed doesn't require net start-up fees or minimums or a contract, so there is an area for clients to test programs. C-Cubed staffs for 75 percent utilization and charges around $12 per person per hour (and they only charge when an agent is doing work for a client), and Durham told me that chat times go down the longer they work with a client.

Among C-Cubed clients, they are handling e-mail for Net2Phone, and for Sony, they are providing e-selling live sales help on the Sony Web site. Other clients include Ritz Interactive, allpets.com and Koss AV.

C-Cubed Solutions is planning on adding Spanish, Portuguese and French, so they will be able to offer their services to all of the Americas as well as a large portion of Europe, and there are also plans to expand into offering voice services in the future.

So, is India the panacea for all companies looking to give their customers follow-the-sun e-commerce sales and support? For some it will be and the companies mentioned here are already providing a viable outsourcing alternative. But no one place can provide the solutions for all needs, so look at India and compare your needs to what companies there are offering.

Author's Note: Reading Whitman's lines again as well as my introduction to this piece on the night of September 11, 2001, perhaps my faith in the opportunities for greater understanding of the human condition through global communications seems too idealistic, but I cannot help but feel that the more we can spread knowledge, the more compassionate we will become and the greater the chances for peace. Open your mind and the heart will follow -- the body will no longer be the center of the world -- the center will be the soul.

The author may be contacted at elounsbury@tmcnet.com.

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