With her flowing, hot-pink Indian suit, jangly silver bangles and perky voice, Bhumika Chaturvedi, 24, doesn't fit the stereotype of a thuggish, heard-it-all-before debt collector. But lately, she has had no problem making American debtors cry.
For the past three years, Chaturvedi has been a top collection agent at her call center, phoning hundreds of Americans a day and politely asking them to pay up. As the U.S. financial crisis plunges Americans into debt, her business is one of the fastest-growing sectors in Indian outsourcing. It is also one of the few sectors of outsourcing in India that is still aggressively hiring.
Sitting in a narrow cubicle, her headset switched on, Chaturvedi listens every night to increasingly disturbing tales of woe from the other side of the globe.
"My mortgage payments are just too high, honey. I just can't make the payment this month," a weeping woman with a Southern accent recently told her in response to a call for a $200 credit card payment. "I'm sure y'all heard about the credit crunch and gas prices. I'm flat broke."
"Ma'am, I am here to help you," Chaturvedi calmly said. "Ma'am, maybe you could make a small payment, $100 or $50, anything that you can."
Few places in India absorb and imitate American culture as much as call centers, where ambitious young Indians with fake American accents and American noms de phone spend hours calling people in Indiana or Maine to help navigate software glitches, plan vacations or sell products.
The subculture of call centers tends to foster a cult of America, an over-the-top fantasy where hopes and dreams are easily accomplished by people who live in a brand-name wonderland of high-paying jobs, big houses and luxury getaways.
But collection agents at this call center outside New Delhi are starting to see the flip side of that vision: a country hobbled by debt and filled with people scared of losing their jobs, their houses and their cars.
"Lately, 25-year-old Americans are telling me that they are declaring themselves bankrupt," said Chaturvedi, raising her eyebrows in shock. "These days the situation is so emotional, so fragile. We have to have so much empathy and patience."
"It's like people are totally drowning," said Omkar Gadgil, 24, who goes by the alias Richard Rudy and was a math major in college. He is brainy and considered the office expert on the intricacies of debt collection. "There has just been years of overspending and now, the crash."
In the past, debt-saddled customers were often annoyed by Chaturvedi's calls from the open-air office at Aegis BPO Services. But now they seem depressed, defeated. Even the men sob into the phone, several agents said.
Under the pseudonym Carol Miller, Chaturvedi has found that her ability to deftly work around the standard line, "The check is in the mail," is being challenged by clients throwing out new responses: "How do you expect me to pay? This is the worst crisis since the Great Depression."
Chaturvedi said she has never seen it so bad. Many of the young employees say they are flabbergasted by just how widespread the financial ruin appears to be.
Talking to so many anguished Americans has taught these agents an important lesson: Live within your means. Agents with credit cards are vowing to pay them off every month, even during the coming holiday shopping season, when malls feature neon signs advertising flat-screen TVs and air conditioners.