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Your cheese won't melt? Please hold... A day in the life of a Buenos Aires call center operator. (Special Report: Connection).

Graciela Barrena's normally chirpy voice has dropped to a measured monotone, and she's only been on her shift as a call center operator for an hour.

Most conversations from her Buenos Aires cubicle sound roughly like this: "Yes...yes...yes...yes. Will there be anything else? Who is sending this? Thank you for calling."

Every once in a while, though, she spouts complicated rates and payment schedules. "If you seek a pass for seven years with a credit card it will come to 60 pesos for the inscription," she says, reading terms as they zip by on a screen. "Or you can pay 38 pesos with 24 monthly installments, which includes access to tow trucks:' Or something like that. The words zip by so fast it is hard to be sure.

Barrena, 34, is a nine-year veteran at Argentine call center Indicom. In the blink of an eye she switches from taking phone messages to be typed and sent to text-pager customers of Indicom, her company's bread-and-butter, to selling toll cards for privately run highways. She represents the customer service department of a cheese factory, answers questions about pull-up diapers, then takes callers who want entry forms for a shampoo-company contest.

"The other day someone called to complain that the cheese on her pizza would not melt. So I told her to save a sample and the company would pick it up, analyze it and get back to her," she says. "You get a little of everything in this job."

Barrena's six-hour shift begins at 7:30 a.m. and follows a pattern of sorts. After processing a flurry of pager messages the first hour-and-a-half, calls for the highway toll cards start to come in. By about 10 in the morning those calls fall off and people start dialing an assortment of other toll-free-call services provided by Indicom.

"Your name? Address? Phone number? We'll send the tickets to you, thank you for calling," she says cheerfully into her headset.

Barrena disconnects the call. "That was Maximiliano Jimenez again," she confides. "He's been calling every day for tickets for the shampoo raffle. It gets so you can recognize their voices."

Cost conscious. The shampoo company raffle gets a good number of calls, particularly in light of the US$2,857 prize money, a fortune in today's crisis-ridden Argentina. It is precisely that crisis, and the resulting low cost of Argentine labor, that prompted Barrena's employers to step up contacts with U.S. and Mexican companies in an attempt to persuade them to outsource their call centers to Buenos Aires.

"If you include all our monthly costs and divide them per person, an hour of labor in Argentina can come to less than half the cost in the United States," says Indicom General Manager Pablo Mercade.

Barrena takes a 15-minute noon break, a bite of a granola bar and a quick cup of tea. Then she strolls back to her post and places the earphone on her right ear to give her left a rest. "I would love to handle calls from other countries," she says. "If we could get calls from Central America it would be even better, because they're more fun."

While fun isn't the word that might come to mind in association with call centers, Barrena's colleagues--all women--say they like their jobs. Most of the operators are recruited at local universities, guaranteeing a certain level of education and technological savvy.

At 1:30 p.m., after fielding more than 500 calls, Barrena is ready to go home. "I know it is monotonous to answer phones all day, but that doesn't bother me," she says. "Where else can you sell a toll pass for a highway one minute and give away free diapers the next?"
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Title Annotation:call centers are in Argentina because of low labor costs
Author:Love, Elizabeth
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Answering the call: Latin America finds a thriving business providing customer support to the world. (Special Report: Connection).
Next Article:Clawing back: after a dismal 2002 fund managers foresee a modest recovery. (Investment Report).

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