Recruiters in India Put Out the Call to American Workers

By Jeremy Smerd

Aug. 24, 2007

Chennai, India—Sandy Jones left a voice message and a Silicon Valley telephone number for the potential job candidate. Moments later, when a phone rang inside a small office in Chennai, India, Naranjana Iyengar answered it.

“Yes, I did call you regarding a code analyst at Cisco Systems,” says Iyengar, who is “Sandy Jones” when calling the U.S. to fill job openings for American employers. “Would contract positions work for you?”

Iyengar, 24, has used an American name since she started working as a telemarketer at a call center several years ago. Today she works for recruitment process outsourcing company Summit HR Worldwide, earning a commission every time she fills a job for her clients in the United States.

Companies looking for talent, from low-level hourly workers to executives, have long relied on headhunters and staffing companies to meet their staffing needs, usually paying them a fee for every position they fill. Now, like most every other industry, recruiting has found its way offshore. Because filling temporary, hourly jobs is a low-margin business, some recruiters, like Summit HR, have turned to the Indian workforce to increase their profits.

Summit HR, founded in 2000 and based in Los Altos, California, has 200 employees and offices in the Indian cities of Chennai, Bangalore and Pune. It recruits both American and Indian workforces, and its client list features Cisco, Intel, Dell, and AT&T as well as staffing companies that want to take on large accounts but find little business value in recruiting for low-level jobs. Recruiters in its two offices in Chennai, an industrial city on the country’s southeastern coast formerly known as Madras, are focused on recruiting American employees.

According to technology consulting firm Gartner, the estimated market size of the recruitment process outsourcing industry worldwide is expected to total $1.4 billion in 2007 and will to grow to $2 billion by 2010.

But despite the world’s embrace of India as a business process outsourcing hub, recruitment outsourcing has not been adopted by companies with equal enthusiasm, says Robert Brown, vice president for research at Gartner. Employers worry that recruiters will not have the necessary skills to competently identify appropriate candidates, he says.

“There’s a real reluctance to heavily embrace the offshore model as it pertains to HR recruitment,” Brown says.

At least one staffing company, Spherion Corp., experimented with this outsourcing model. Unhappy with the quality of work it outsourced to Indian recruiters, the company decided to bring that function back onshore, says Brown, who was briefed by Spherion executives on the situation. Spherion declined repeated requests for comment for this story.

Summit COO Sarada Srinivas says companies hesitate to offshore recruiting because it’s a difficult skill to master. With fewer processes that can be standardized, recruiters must have sophisticated language and decision-making skills to sift through thousands of résumés, match a candidate to the right job opening, interview potential employees and send the best ones to onshore recruiters, who then conduct face-to-face interviews.

“What’s really hard to do is separate the wheat from the chaff,” Srinivas says of potential candidates. Summit HR executives say their recruiters work at a much higher skill level than most BPOs.

“There’s only so much you can script,” Srinivas says of her recruiters’ calls. “The actual interview requires a bit of judgment and what you call the human touch.”

Inside Summit’s office in Chennai, 12 young workers, most of them women, sit in front of computers at small cubicles supplied with phones and a map of the United States. Most are recruiting for entry-level and middle-management jobs.

Women compose approximately 35 percent of the IT industry’s workforce in India, according to the Indian IT industry group Nasscom. In its 2005 survey of women in the workplace, women said they feel they have achieved parity with men because they have been in the workforce since the BPO industry began. Women, according to the survey, “are intrinsically suited” to work in the industry because they are good communicators. Women said flexible work hours allowed them to “juggle career aspirations and home.”

Recruiters identify themselves by their assumed names, saying they work for a Los Altos, California-based company. Then they leave the company’s Silicon Valley phone number with its 408 area code. Only if people ask do they reveal that the number they’ve dialed connects them to India.

Some recruiters search job boards like Monster. Others sit before Excel spreadsheets plotting their next cold call.

It’s just after midnight in India when Mrudubhashini Chandrashekar, a 24-year-old recruiter, gets Dominique Rodriguez, a construction worker from Redwood City, California, on the line. “Are you looking for any job openings?” Chandrashekar says. “That’s perfect, Dominique. Actually, I got your résumé from Monster and we are tying to fill a position in Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.”

Things seem to be going well. Rodriquez is clearly interested in the construction job at the physics research laboratory at Stanford University. Then Rodriquez’s cell phone signal fades. A bit of a panic sets in.

“Hello? Hello? Yes, Dominique, I’m sorry. The voice was breaking up,” Chandrashekar says. “Hello? I’m sorry Dominique your woice”—and here she fails to pronounce the “v” in “voice” as she had earlier pronounced it in “valley”—”is breaking up. Would you like me to call back again? Do you have my number? OK. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

Correct pronunciation, like an Americanized name, is meant to put the candidate at ease rather than fool them into thinking they’re speaking with an American, recruiters say. Most people are not upset to learn that they’ve received a call from India. Proper accents, though, can establish trust and rapport with candidates, which is what’s needed to keep them on the phone and engaged, recruiters say. Identifying potential hires takes longer than a 60-second call. Perseverance is a quality successful recruiters possess.

“They have to keep it up to see results,” says Ausha Anandakumar, who runs Summit’s training and employee development programs. “At the other BPOs you get results right away. You just have to make 350 calls and you get a pat on the back.”

Most of the recruiters are hired from the BPO industry, Anandakumar says, where they have experience talking to customers on the phone. Before working at Summit, Iyengar made several hundred calls a day as a telemarketer selling Visa cards. Her target audience was people with low incomes and credit scores.

“We had a lot of strategies to sell those credit cards, saying there was no annual fee and all that,” she says.

The job was hard and monotonous, but it exposed Iyengar to the rich vernacular of American profanity.

“They used all the bad words,” she says. “We would just say, ‘Thank you for your time.’ ” Then she would hang up.

Her current job is an improvement. The hours are similar, usually from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Generally, people are happy to hear from a person with job openings.

The company’s training is broken into three parts. First, Indian recruiters learn how to understand job descriptions, where a job is located and how much it pays. Most of the jobs pay an hourly wage.

“That’s a new concept for us. In India we don’t get paid by the hour—we get paid by the month,” Anandakumar says. Second, recruiters learn how to find candidates. Using key words, they search online communities like LinkedIn, Craigslist, Yahoo and Google groups, and alumni associations.

Once potential candidates are identified, recruiters inspect the authenticity of the résumé they have submitted and whether a person’s credentials make them good enough to call.

The anatomy of the call goes like this:

First, seek permission.

“Dominique? Is it a good time to talk with you about the position? Perfect.” Chandrashekar is back on the phone with her prospective candidate.

Next, interview the candidate. Get them to talk about their experience.

“Can you explain to me a little bit about your position with West Valley Construction?” Chandrashekar asks. “OK. When you said underground construction, what exactly was your position there? What exactly was your role?”

Finally, recruiters must go over the details of the job, its pay rate and whether candidates have any problem with a background check or a drug test. Once a recruiter identifies a potential hire, they give the information to the employer or staffing agency in the U.S., which conducts a face-to-face interview.

But getting to that stage is not easy. Rodriguez turns out to be a good candidate because he’s a construction worker looking for full-time work. One problem quickly arises: Rodriguez’s cell phone signal fades, and with it, the chance—at least for now—to fill a job in California.

“Hello, Dominique? Your voice is breaking up,” Chandrashekar says. This time she nails the sound of the “v.” But to no avail. The line goes dead. Undeterred, she returns to her list of potential candidates and prepares to make another call.

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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