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India calling

Philip Scott takes a tour of Aviva’s call centres in India

In a recent TV advert-ising campaign, NatWest delivered a none too subtle swipe at groups who offshore their call-centre operations. The bank let it be known that all of its call centres are based in the UK.

The issue of financial institutions relocating operations thousands of miles away has stirred up controversy. UK job losses and not being able to speak to someone in the UK as well as security worries are typical charges levelled at offshore call centres. But Aviva Offshore Services chairman John Ainley believes that “a lot of heat has come out of the matter”.

Ainley travels to India around six times a year for a week at a time and tends to visit each of the locations but spends more time in the west of the country at Pune as that is where the leadership team are based.

Aviva has operations in Delhi, Pune and Bangalore as well as in Colombo in Sri Lanka. Money Marketing went to India to visit the firm’s operations. Speaking to Ainley at the Pune call centre, where operations started in 2003, the chairman explained that while the group does not try to hide its offshoring, neither does it try to “make a virtue of it”.

A survey from YouGov published last week for Alliance & Leicester revealed that offshore call centres are still very much a bone of contention. The research found that 81 per cent of respondents would be unhappy having their bank account or other financial products serviced overseas while only 6 per cent say they are happy with the idea and 13 per cent have no preference.

The chief concerns are issues over communication, jobs and security as well as frustrations with overseas call centres. The leading concern, at 88 per cent, was problems with communication and 65 per cent have worries over the security of personal information.

In terms of security in the Aviva operations, no mobile phones or cameras are all-owed into the buildings. They are probably the closest thing there is to a paperless office – printers are unavailable. MM was not even allowed to take a cup of coffee from one floor to another in the Pune building.

“Frankly, if our people are well trained they should not notice that they are talking to somebody in India,” claims Ainley. “We are driven by customer service feedback. People are increasingly recognising that it is a global economy and just as your clothes come from Sri Lanka or Singapore, so you get some of your service from India.”

Money Marketing list- ened in on a number of calls being dealt with while at the centre. The staff were calm, confident, articulate and friendly.

One staff member, Indu Pappachan, was dealing with an call from a customer who was agitated over his endowment policies with the firm. Pappachan, is a 24-year-old computer science graduate. She has been working with Aviva for 18 months and, despite her academic background, she wants to stay and make a career in this field.

A shift at the call centre for Pappachan can typically start at 1.30pm and finish at 11pm to coincide with UK business hours. She is trained in the areas she handles – endowments and investment.

MM was allowed to listen in to a variety of calls and the “India question” was never raised by callers raised although this is not always the case.

Pappachan has never been on the receiving end of anyone irate as a result of having to speak to a call centre in India but callers have said “I would like to speak to someone in the UK because that is where I live,” on occasions.

NU Life director of operations John Whitaker was with MM on the India visit. He was responsible for building the life section of the offshore operation. He stresses that gripes from customers over language issues are minimal, making up probably less than 1 per cent of complaints a month. What is more likely to inspire groans from customers is “speed in answering phones or the processing of information and turn-round”.

He adds: “In recent months, Norwich Union has made a pledge to improve service to IFAs. Our Indian operations are part of the solution. By sending some of our back-office functions to India, we are able to free up resources to support IFAs.

“I am proud of what our colleagues in the UK and India are doing and we are beginning to see results.”

Whitaker stresses that training is a priority. Potential candidates are tested on English grammar and accent. Sudipta Mitre is a cultural trainer at the Bangalore centre and she teaches UK news, current affairs and culture but Mitre has yet to visit Britain. A typical task in recruitment and during training, which lasts typically about six to eight weeks, is neutralising the Indian accent, making it easier to understand for the British ear. The Bangalore office has seven training rooms, all of which are named after UK universities, including the Oxford room, Cambridge room and Bristol room.

Aviva Offshore Services CEO Rajnish Virmani says: “If 100 people apply for a job, about six or maybe eight will be employed. Some will be rejected because of grammar and English but sometimes they go away, train more and then come back to try again.”

In the Bangalore office, in the south of India, Virm- ani points out there are 50 new people coming in every month with a whole floor ready to be filled.

The Indian call centre phenomenon is showing no sign of slowing down as business process outsourc- ing (BPO) is continuing to grow rapidly. The people who work in these offices are typically graduates earning in the region of 2,000 a year, more than doctors and lawyers earn in India.

Ainley says: “What most people will tell you who have worked in this field in the past is that they came here for cost reasons but ended up also finding quality. There are lots of qualified people here who are very keen to give us ideas on how we can improve the business. We have a long-term commitment to India. We see it increasingly as a source of ideas.”

But Ainley is keen to stress that the group is also keen to continue to invest in the UK.

NU started building its operations in India in 2002. The firm’s initial focus was on voice-based processing in NU Insurance and NU Direct retail and customer services claim-handling, which started oper- ations in 2003.

In India, the group has a scheme where Aviva employs Indian suppliers to run its offshore business. Ainley says: “We wanted to get scale quickly over here so we partnered with three companies who essentially built this operation for us.”

Aviva has three such suppliers in India – EXL (Delhi and Pune), 24/7 (Bangalore) and WNS (Pune and also in Colombo Sri Lanka). The India-based staff are employed by these suppliers but work solely for Aviva. The ultimate goal is eventually to transfer the operation to Aviva ownership and the staff will become Aviva employees.

The first planned transfer to Aviva at this stage is pencilled in for 2007. The firm anticipates that by 2007 it will have around 7,800 staff in India. At present, there are around 4,500 staff there, equating to 15 per cent of the group’s total workforce.

A common sentiment from Aviva UK is that the firm’s branding as a financial ser- vices provider is a big attraction for potential employees. Ainley says: “We are an international firm and can offer career development opportunities which some of the local companies, although maybe sizeable operations in their own right, may just not have the capacity to be able to do that. They do not have the worldwide reach Aviva has.”

Yet the real challenge for Aviva is not finding well educated, fluent English-speaking staff but keeping them. Ainley admits that attrition is the biggest battle. The average turnover in the industry is high at around 60 per cent with fierce competition between firms.

Aviva tries to keep staff happy and enthusiastic about their working environment. It offers gyms, internet cafes, games rooms with pool and table tennis and a cinema room. It also runs employee of the month competitions with prizes such as DVD players and microwaves. Each employee also gets a taxi service to and from the office by the company on a daily basis, ensuring a comfortable commute and a punctual workforce.

MM is told that the strat- egy is to “sell a career in the insurance industry as opposed to a job in a call centre”.

Economic and cultural change in India have been a big driver behind the development of the BPO industry. However, nearly 25 per cent of Indians live below the poverty line as defined by the World Health Organisation and there is still widespread poverty and illiteracy. Inflation has historically been in double digits but has now stabilised at around 5 per cent.

But Virmani says: “People in their 20s often own a car, something which historically was more common for someone aged 35-40, and they are very much into fashion labels.” Consumerism is now very much part of India’s fabric, especially among the young workforce.

Ainley says: “The general insurance business started the journey and we want to continue that with the life business. We have seen a lot of process improvement ideas. Our history in the UK is that life and general insurance businesses do not spend very much time working with each other. What we have here is a great example of the value of working together, we have seen much more cross-fertilisation of ideas between GI and life than we have seen before and that is really bringing benefits to us.

“We have had a lot of trai- ners come out here and for those who want to develop their careers internation- ally, there is no finer place. Aviva is an international organisation and we want to develop peoples’ careers int-ernationally and we are very keen for people from India to come and work elsewhere in the group and vice versa.”

But from a logistical point of view has offshor- ing been a nightmare for Aviva? Apparently not, Ainley declares that it has been a “logistical joy”.

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