One of the largest new business opportunities in India is Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). And one of the largest ethical and legal issues we have in India today, also has to do with BPOs - which is Privacy and Identity Theft.
A lot has been written about the issue, with many companies and even the government talking of measures to curb this menace which is irritating at its harmless best, and is dangerous at its criminal worst.
While there are international laws, and all the right noises being made about action being taken in India, I would like to comment upon it from a social and cultural perspective, and address the "harmless irritating side" of BPOs and telemarketing.
At the basic physical level, India is a very crowded and overpopulated country. There are people constantly around you, nudging you, rubbing shoulders with you, and poking their noses into what you're doing. It's an accepted fact of life.
At the next and higher level, is Indian culture of being friendly (even to strangers) and being hospitable (a guest is equal to God). The belief and oft used phrase "Hum unhe jaante hain" ("we know them/him/her") is a great bridge between family, friends, and even strangers.
Which is why it will not be amiss if you drop in at your neighbour's house unannounced, or have relatives move into your house without advance notice, or for that matter if you offer water and food to even strangers that knock on your door in India.
The result is a society that believes in no personal boundaries, no personal space, and basically no right to privacy.
Now this mindset is very well when it comes to a society and a way of life (even though you may hate it) among friends and family, but is a disaster when it comes to doing business and operating in a professional world.
But most people (companies as well as telemarketers) don't know where the boundaries lie. And that is first and foremost an issue of culture and organisational ethics, rather than the law.
For example, for the past four years I've been getting calls on my cellphone from people asking from my wife. On probing, I always discover they're all telemarketing calls from a bank, auto insurance, or car dealers.
The first time it happened, I remembered that when my wife bought her Mitsubishi car, for some forgotten reason, she had given my cellphone number as hers. On further probing the callers, I discovered the first caller on behalf of the auto-loan company, had previously worked for the Mitsubishi dealer where my wife bought the car! Subsequenly the lady moved on to (and shared the list with) other companies who added my number to their database!
The point to note is, the lady wasn't apologetic, but tried to make small talk and act familiar, just because she'd spoken with us once in the past!
It's not amusing anymore!
Moving on from irritating, is the next danger of familiarity - which leads to loss of business for many companies.
The other day in Gurgaon, I was in the same elevator as two well dressed young execs. They were going to meet the CEO of a company in that building and this is how the conversation went:
Exec 1: So you know this guy!?
Exec 2: Yes, he was my Platinum Card client at A***
Exec 1: Wow, that's cool! So he will take the card?
Exec 2: Yeah sure, I call up all my A*** clients and tell them I'm now with A** **** and get them to meet me for five minutes... "Woh hame jaante hain" (they know me). And I force them to take the new card!
Exec 1: Wow!!
It troubled me to no end, that here was this guy, boasting aloud in a crowded lift about something that wasn't just unethical, but illegal as well!
If either of the banks have figured out the *** names and want to know more, write to me, I'll give you the guy's name and place of visit as well!
The first bank obviously spent a lot of money to acquire that client (or maybe not), and here was this jerk washing it down the drain! It also troubled me because I am a large customer of the second bank, and I feared that my personal information could be sold further as well!
It's obvious that neither the first bank (or auto company) or the second had made any effort to establish the concept of data theft. And that what these people were doing is illegal. Perhaps they'd even let slip in their interviews that they had the database, which is why they were hired in the first place!!
I believe these two incidents reflect the core issue behind our porous BPOs. Of how core human values if not put the right context, can mess with organisational and business values.
Moral of the Story: If India and Indian BPOs want to be taken seriously by countries, companies, and customers, they have to first put a culture, work ethics, and belief systems in place.
Organisational and Social pressure, will prove a better preventive deterrent than the law.
The law should at best used as punishment for error!