Equal to the task

Camaraderie: The EuroAble call centre in Mumbai exudes cheer and confidence - Photo: Paul Noronha   -  Business Line

Ms Seema Dwivedi, an amployee of EuroAble, the call centre manned by physically challenged. Photo: Paul Noronha   -  Business Line

EuroAble in Mumbai is a call centre run exclusively by people with physical challenges.



Seema Dwivedi had polio when she was four, badly affecting her right leg; over the years her parents worried about her future. But today, this thirty-year-old is gainfully employed and confidently taking customers' calls at EuroAble, Eureka Forbes' inbound call centre in Mumbai; she has crossed an important barrier… both mental and psychological.

This call centre is run exclusively for the physically challenged and is the brainchild of Eureka Forbes Chairman Shapoor Mistry. Seema came to the sprawling headquarters of the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped (NASEOH) in Chembur (where this call centre is located) a few years ago, and was trained in data entry work. The earning was decent at around Rs 3,500 a month. But when this call centre was started in April, she got a job here at double her old pay… Rs 7,000.

Coming from a family of five sisters and a brother, she initially gave her entire salary to her mother. Her father, an ex-serviceman, is no more. “But my mother refuses to take my salary; so I now give her Rs 1,500; the remaining I invest in shares,” she says. She has small holdings in Ambuja Cement, Sesa Goa, and so on and is now waiting for a “good IPO”!

Empowerment

Doing her third year B.Com by correspondence, when asked about marriage, she says cheerfully: “Yes, that is a possibility, but before that I want to save enough, build up a good portfolio and have my own house. I don't know if I will find the right man. Marriage is such a gamble anyway, and I am handicapped. If he leaves me, I should have something to fall back upon. I would never want to be totally dependent on him.”

Wow! isn't this what empowerment is all about?

The 5,000-sq-metre call centre oozes not only self-confidence and a sense of achievement but also a lot of cheer. Done up in bright yellows, greens and blues, the workstations and aisles are bigger than in other offices, and the floor is carpeted, so that the crutches and wheelchairs won't slip.

Vinath Hegde, who heads the Customer Relationship Management division at Eureka Forbes, says all the 70 employees — 10 are women — come from lower middle-classes. The average age is 26, which explains the sense of bonhomie and cheer that pervades the place. A few are graduates and others are encouraged to graduate through correspondence. Some have joined English-speaking classes, at a hefty monthly fee of Rs 6,000. All of them were recruited in January and came with basic computer skills, having done data entry work with NASEOH. They were trained to handle calls related to Eureka Forbes' products. “Today everyone is hands-on; they've been trained to keep their cool with irate customers and their English has improved,” says Vinath.

On what this money has done to their morale and what it means to them, she says that after receiving their first salary, some said: “Madam, humney yeh paisa bhagwan ke samne rakha hei. (We kept this money before God.) We had parents calling to say: ‘Thank you very much, today my child is working and getting decent income'.”

What hits you is how money means different things to different people. What most youngsters in a metro do with their money doesn't hold good here. These youngsters want to give their parents their entire salary, but the parents want to keep the money aside for their children's future. “Some of them want to buy stocks and we are trying to open demat accounts for them,” smiles Vinath. But even opening bank accounts was tough for many, as they lack address proof, she adds.

Parents all the way

What is overwhelming is the extreme affection and gratitude they exude for their parents. Vimla Christie is 28, has four brothers and three sisters; she got polio at six, and lost her father in an accident two years ago. Her eyes shimmer as she holds back tears to describe how her mother and father had “struggled all their lives” for her. “I never expected I'd get a job and earn like this,” she says. With good English language skills she was selected by another call centre too, but against a central pick-up and drop, here she enjoys the comfort of being picked up from home and dropped back. Not surprisingly, her entire salary goes to her mother; “I don't want anything for myself. My mother has suffered for me and I want her to be happy. She keeps worrying about me, wondering who'll take care of me after she is gone.”

What about the future? “I am 28, and till she lives, I'll work and give all my money to her; after that I will give it to some ashram… I want to do something for the less-privileged people.”

Star performer

Both Syed Abdullah, 25, a star performer at this centre, and Rajiv Mehta, 28, exude a rare degree of self-confidence. Says Vinath, “Abdullah picked up the work very fast, and is now a group leader.” He is a graduate and aspires to be a “floor manager soon.” His salary, of course, first went to his mother, “but my parents don't need my money and refuse to take it. So I use it to buy clothes and travel.”

He always remains cool and calm when irate customers shout at the other end. So, how does he manage that? “I just listen; obviously either service or sales has made a mistake so the customer is shouting. Nobody would do it for the heck of it. Quite often I handle other people's escalation calls too. Pata nahi kyon, lekin customers meri awaz sunkar hi naram pad jaate hei (Don't know why, but the moment they hear my voice, customers cool down),” he says cockily.

Mehta is equally cool about handling irate customers. “No, I don't feel bad; they are shouting at Eureka Forbes, not at me,” he grins. When he got this job he was running a vada-pao outlet near his house. The smart young man has found a person to manage his stall; “I pay him Rs 200 a day, and make a daily profit of Rs 150-200.” Mehta reports for the 12-8 p.m. shift, after which he mans his stall till 11.30 p.m.

So what does this savvy Gujarati do with his salary and profits? “I give it all to Mummy; but she says she doesn't need it, so she saves it for me.” And he doesn't invest in the stock market; “why lose hard-earned money,” he chuckles. Marriage is on his horizon; “but there is no hurry. Mummy is looking out for a girl, so let's see,” he shrugs.

“We are yet to sample your vada-pao,” Vinath teases him; Mehta springs up from the seat to say: “ Madam, abhi le aata hu.” She asks him to sit down and attend to his calls!

Camaraderie

But the camaraderie between the boss and the employees and the chatter that emanates from the small pantry area, where they all have lunch, says a lot about the comfort zone of the employees. “Some of them have worked in other call centres, but they say they always felt a little diffident or different there. But here they are much more comfortable and at home,” says Vinath.

She adds that the call centre was first tried as a pilot project with six employees. “While training we behaved like clients, shouted at them and warned them that you cannot be emotional or start crying every five minutes!”

As she walks me around the centre and we watch the employees take calls with confidence and calm, she smiles: “You should have seen them when they first came here. They couldn't even look you in the eye because they didn't have the confidence. Today, during our quality audits we marvel at their voice modulations and the confidence with which they handle customers' doubts and complaints. One of them recently made a power point presentation at our head office, and he said earlier he used to shiver while taking a call!”

At the moment this centre handles customers only from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Soon customers from Delhi region too will be serviced from here. While Hindi and Marathi are the main languages used, many customers speak in English and the EuroAble team is able to handle calls in English with increasing confidence. “Every afternoon, after lunch we make them read newspapers aloud to test and train them on voice modulations and pronunciation,” says Vinath.

Sudha Balachandra, Executive Secretary, NASEOH, says they had to think out of the box when one of the major companies giving the disabled data-entry work moved out of Mumbai. Recession, too, has taken a toll on this work; “earlier some of them used to make over Rs 10,000 a month but now that is not possible. So we explored this possibility with Eureka Forbes, and it is working well.”

There have been other breakthroughs as well. NASEOH has managed to place nine more people trained by it with the Deutsche Bank for regular banking operations.

Vinath adds that by the yearend the call centre strength will be expanded to 160, and is enthused that a lot of people are calling for a job here.

At EuroAble, as the 26-year-old quadriplegic Ashok Gupta confidently answers calls, and is admired by his colleagues for his poetry-writing skills — one of their favourites is ‘No Vacancy' — few realise that the man in the poem who wanted to commit suicide because he could not get a job is a reflection of the poet himself. “Yes, I did get such thoughts once upon a time,” Gupta confesses, adding, “but I am extremely happy now.”

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Published on July 21, 2011

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