Mirpur city of Kashmir, situated 80 miles south east of Islamabad, is often called the ‘eastern most city of United Kingdom’ due to big population of British Kashmiris(Pakistanis or just Muslims, whatever they want to be known as). Jars of Marmite(a British peculiarity which I have never tasted) and tins of tuna fish and ‘baked beans in tomato sauce’ are easily available in local shops. The supermarkets from Mirpur, would not be out of place in streets of Bradford or Birmingham. Opening the Sunday edition of Pakistani English language newspaper, I saw this quarter page advertisement, British Call Centre Requires Manager and UK accent CSR (Customer Service Representatives).
After watching the film ‘Swades’, about an Indian born NASA scientist who after designing a satellite goes back to his birthplace in poor North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and builds a water reservoir to generate electricity for poor villagers on self-help basis, I was also filled with a sense of patriotic altruism (slightly misplaced I must admit) and wanted to go back and ‘do something’ (yet not sure what, where and how).
Mostly British Pakistanis visit ‘Back Home’ in the summer school vacations from June to September , not a perfect time I must add as the temperature average is above 40 Celsius during this time, hardly comfortable for mild weathered British-Pakistanis.
I felt that the advertisement was a ‘God sent’ sign for my next venture(adventure more likely).The Call Centre was an ‘Out-bound’ facility, meaning that CSRs were making calls to British phone lines through Internet Voice Data Protocol and selling every thing from mobile phones to credit card deals to British customers. The savvy customers are able to detect the ‘Indian Accent’ coming from bigger and better IT firms in Bangalore India and come up with rebuttals like “why are you calling me from India?” to which the clueless CSR has no defence. More importantly Indian CSRs often don’t have the local British knowledge e.g. the geographical difference between Dundee and Dudley.
On the agreed day I arrived at the office for the interview, the CEO was the younger brother of a British businessman, he had visited his elder brother in Bradford a few times but never actually lived in UK for any long duration, while the ‘Big Brother’ controlled the nerve centre of his BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) remotely from his office in UK.
The management team which were supposed to interview me, were a ‘Robbie William’ (no not the Robbie Williams Singer but his Pakistani Christian name sake) who had acquired a shaky ‘American Accent’ due to his high school diploma from Texas where his father was once posted and the assistant manageress, a Hijab wearing student from one of the many Am-Anglo (not the Anglo American) Schools of capital Islamabad. The supervisor (and accent coach) was a Canadian born Pakistani whose favourite topics were alcohol and Canadian dollar exchange rate.
I was unanimously declared the ‘One-eyed King among the blind’. The first task was to round-up as many ‘British sounding’ recruits as possible. The Second, I was put in conference calls with our worried clients, assuring them that we do have genuine British Pakistani sounding CSR. Mind you, Asians living in UK do have certain differences from the ‘White’ English, but these small things are usually tolerated as ‘Asian Accent’ by my English neighbours, “Innit”. My challenge was to monitor the quality of the calls and equipping the CSRs (usually the Pakistani school-leavers from O-levels of Cambridge schools) with local knowledge. I showed them how to use on-line phone directories and maps to know the correct location and information and we could always say, “We are based in Pudsey Business Park” (not entirely incorrect, at least our CEO’s post box was).
We had a smooth-talking IT manager whose pseudonym was ‘Shane Mike’. What! , I protested “wrong way round, do you have any idea about first name and Surnames in UK?” It was Shane Mike’s idea that whenever we had Internet speed delays or bad voice quality on phone lines, he would calmly tell the complaining outsourcing companies in UK, “I apologise, but because of relief operations army helicopters are hovering too close to our satellite dishes”, we would all have stomach pain due to excessive laughing at his straight faced lies. The clueless English executives would buy the story of ‘War on Terror’ sympathetically.
I was lucky with the CVs and started dialling for prospective recruits, I would listen to people for couple of minutes, assessing their confidence and accent on the phone. Few of the really good CSRs were Samina from Birmingham and Sher Afgan from Manchester, both were re-christened as ‘Sam or Samantha’ and ‘Steve Anderson’ respectively. Sam was living with her Pakistani in-laws permanently and Steve was running away from his British in-laws, Zia (ex admin officer from UN Peace-keepers in South Lebanon) was waiting for visa from his British wife while Mark Darcy was heart-broken after his British girlfriend had to marry someone else due to family pressure. All of them were quick learners and were promoted to ‘British Speaking’ supervisors while Robbie and the American school leavers were given ‘less accent-sensitive’ assignments and could always say, “No Madam, I am from America”.
The six months have taught me that, Pakistani businesspeople, no matter if they are from Houston, Bradford or Karachi, are very resourceful (despite the Load-shedding ,Internet outage and War on Terror) and would not take no for an answer. Now the company has tied the knot with a big textile group in Islamabad and their new manager is Paul, a happy go-lucky English backpacker on gap-year from university who is not afraid of terrorism in Pakistan.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of people concerned. Dil Nawaz is a blogger, a LUBP reader from ‘Bradistan (little Pakistan) Bradford UK