“I passed by the training room on my way to Bakshi’s office. I peeked inside: fresh trainees were attending a session. Some students were snoozing; they were probably still getting used to working at night”
“’35 = 10’, the instructor wrote in a big bold letters on the blackboard”
“I remembered the 35 = 10 rule from my training days two years ago. It helped agents to adjust to their callers”
“‘Remember’, the instructor said to the class, ‘a thirty-five-year old American’s brain and IQ is the same as a ten-year-old Indian’s brain. This will help you to understand your clients. You need to be as patient as you are when dealing with a child. Americans are dumb, just accept it. I don’t want anyone losing their cool during the calls…’”
These are the excerpts from the Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller novel on call centres, One Night @ Call Center where the lead character recalls his training days after seeing a new bunch of trainees flocked in the training room.
But are the Americans really that dumb, they are supposed to be the superpower after all?
Well, it’s just fiction. Not every BPO company trains its employees by giving such a derogatory notion about Americans. Rather, the commandments they lay down before trainees are bow down to Americans, think high about them, work on Diwali and celebrate Halloween’s Day, dream dollars and beat the bush-es to be polite to them.
But training in call centres is not just a novel but has commandments of its own.
IT Examiner intends to explore the dynamics of the industry and its needs from the training perspective.
The last decade has witnessed the boom in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) revolutionizing the job scenario in India. Primarily, the employment boost in the then job-stricken nation was the main driving force behind its popularity among the largely unemployed Indian young generation.
The industry came as a respite to those who despite of being educated used to fruitlessly knock the government doors for bread and butter. Keeping aside the candidates with references from politicians and bureaucrats, there were never enough vacant positions in government sectors to accommodate huge number of deserving job-seekers in their dilapidated offices.
There was a dire need of job revolution. In came the IT and BPO industry, though the IT services companies required mostly engineers. But IT enabled services sector (ITes) or BPO companies opened the floodgates creating mammoth number of jobs.
A factsheet of the IT-BPO Trade body, Nasscom states that there has been a ten-fold growth in the employee strength in BPO export sector over the last eight years rising from 70,000 employees in 2000-01 to 7,00,000 employees in 2007-08.
The NASSCOM spokesperson says, “BPO services exports up by 30% (USD) accounting for over 1/4th of the export aggregate, is the fastest growing segment across software and services exports driven by scale as well as scope. Service portfolio strengthened by vertical specialization and global delivery capabilities. M&A continues to significantly complement organic growth.”
Not only the BPO companies offered jobs but also managed to lure the highly potential Indian youth crowd with a structured offer letter with mouth-watering pay packet and maximum facilities. The companies identified the virgin area and positioned themselves as a major respite from the frustration and depression incurred owing to job crisis.
The ‘maximum employee satisfaction’ was the mantra and it worked and worked wonders. Overnight, the sector enslaved and employed the highest English speaking workforce. The idea was to make them work for innumerable nights to pacify the whites by giving them a sense of security for every possible materialistic pleasure in life.
The job-seekers couldn’t say ‘no’ to jobs that provide fat salary with free transportation, free food, plush offices and of course, social recognition and independence.
The Indian as well as foreign companies that opened up BPO shops in India must be lauded for their concept that initiated a good stream of jobs and revenues.
The identities changed too. A ‘Krishna’ became ‘Chris’ and a Radha became ‘Rose’. Forced pseudonyms hardly insulted the Indians owing to the colonial hangover.
India became the ultimate outsourcing destination for foreign companies mainly for couple of factors – Cost effectiveness and huge talent pool of English speaking workforce.
The next step was to train the workforce and to improve the level of communication during their interactions with the customers from English-speaking nations - US, UK and Australia.
The industry focused on more specific matters in BPO training in which it succeeded immensely. The primary focus was on equipping the employees with the right tone of communication with good command on verbal skills.
But the industry soon started identifying the need to diversify the focus with the understanding of macro dynamics of support services across different industry verticals.
Apart from strong communication skills, there are other factors too that have been considered as basic parameters to hire a candidate for a BPO job. People from different parts of India come with different accents, modulations, rates of speech and cultural variations. The primary focus is on accent neutralization.
The Chief People Officer of a BPO firm, WNS Global Services, Karthik Sarma says “With increased globalization of clients and customers, accent training in Indian BPOs is moving toward accent neutralization as opposed to acquiring new accents. At WNS, we believe there is a clear Global Business Language emerging and we have adopted this philosophy for our accent training programs. Reducing the regional accent to a neutral speech requires continuous training. The objective is to reduce the major influencers that make the speech sound regional. At WNS, we ensure that the employees receive constant support of Trainers and the Voice Coaches on the job that will help minimize the regional accent further. Our initiatives focus on emphasizing clarity of communication, a service attitude and a good command over the process knowledge. Voice training is a continuous process at WNS starting with a minimum three week program. The focus is on comprehending customer issues, being knowledgeable of the client’s business processes, communicating clearly in an empathetic manner. The training is largely role plays and simulation of calls.”
Sarma further adds, “WNS’ learning group has 300 trainers and curriculum designers who develop classroom and e-learning curricula for employee training. Having in-house curriculum designers is fairly unique to WNS in the BPO industry and has enabled it to better design learning programs for its employees”.
The Associate training manager at a training firm, Hero Mindmine Institute, Bindu Sanyasi says, “Personality development, confidence building and grooming a candidate to adapt to a corporate environment are as essential as communication classes in the foundation level training (FLT)”.
The Add Value India Lead Training Manager, Paul Attic says, “People coming with MTI (Mother Tongue Influence) do face problems initially, but somehow they manage to cope up with the accents due to constant training interventions and high quality of V&A trainers that BPOs provide.'
Most of the companies have well-chalked out training modules for the new entrants and, especially for the freshers before they start taking and making calls as their employers’ clients’ representatives. Some call this period the honeymoon period as this is the only time where the employees enjoy at the maximum while they get paid without much work pressure or targets. Also for the freshers, this period marks the beginning of an unknown journey.
On the training front, there are two levels of training that a BPO employee goes through before hitting it on the bay (the call centre floor).
Firstly, the foundation level training (FLT) includes non-process specific orientation skills like voice & accent, personality development, basic English grammar, effective communication over the phone, sales pitch (only for outbound or telemarketing processes), telephonic etiquettes and in some cases, they give a brief idea about geography and culture in US to help them in understanding and handling the US customers in a better way.
After going through FLT, employees are given information and training on the process (product/ service of a client). The call centre executives respectively represent the clients while talking to the customers.
The process level training (PLT) gives an idea to the employees on several complications and critical aspects of the process and how to handle the customers when they call the Indians seeking for help. In the cases of outbound calls, the process training is more of the sales pitch and verbatim.
The normal duration of FLT in most of the companies lasts between 4-6 weeks for the new recruits followed by 3-4 weeks of PLT. For existing employees, a week is enough to access on where does that particular employee stands.
Some companies shorten it to one month covering both FLT and PLT.
Few companies outsource the FLT training to training institutes specializing in soft skills, voice & accent but the companies normally don’t outsource PLT as the processes are a matter of confidentiality.
Sarma says, “New recruits undergo 4-6 weeks of training including pre-process training on client culture and communication, 7-10 days of voice process and accent neutralization training, and 3-4 weeks of process specific training. Existing employees undergo 7-8 days of training each year. The company offers training in business skills including presentation and writing skills, process skills including quality management and process transitioning, and leadership training including change management, mentoring and coaching, and situational leadership among others. 1-2 day time management courses are mandatory for all employees.'
Adding some light on the training assessment at WNS, Sarma says, “WNS maps its skill sets in terms of difficulty on a scale of 1-7 ranging from simple data entry to high-end analytical work. Agents typically begin with level 1 or 2 tasks and are cross-trained through on-the-job training to master different processes with different complexity levels. A single client could have 150 or more processes, and WNS takes advantage of fluctuations in work flow to cross-train employees by pairing them up with employees working in related tasks. Employees spend 4-5% of their time in such on-the-job learning.”
Paul from Add value India says, “There are primarily 3 types of trainings that are provided in-house - Voice & Accent training, Process / Product Training and Soft Skills. But strong communication skills are mandatory parameters; however it’s not the only parameter, good communication skills help in getting into a BPO. Apart from communication skills the other skills that are required are customer service skills, selling Skills, time Management.”
On the training outsourcing aspect, Sanyasi from Hero Mindmine “Normally, the companies don’t outsource PLT as a process is again a matter of client confidentiality”.
The training manager at a global BPO company (unnamed on request) says, “ Few companies don’t bother to outsource even the FLT training to outsourcing activities like his as the in-house trainers in these companies are far better equipped and professional in approach to yield better results compared to that of outsourcing the training activities to a third party vendor”.
But the unnamed trainer believes that there is a component of added value in outsourcing the training. The institutes are equipped with industry exposure and the pros and cons of different companies which they acquire while training employees of several BPOs.
On the human resource factor, India has a huge pool of English-speaking workforce which played a pivotal role in positioning India as a major BPO hub.
But the high volumes of these potential employees need rigorous training when it comes to required aspects of speech in their accent like Mother tongue influence (MTI), rate of speech, intonation and modulation.
Indians by race, which is obvious enough factor, differ from the English speaking people in the technicalities of their speech. The basic linguistic structure is so different among different languages, especially Indian vernaculars and English that it affects communications.
Dividing India into four major zones – North, South, East and West – training experts have different opinions which also questions the rough tunes of biasness on the provincial basis.
Bindu Sanyasi says, “In my 10 years of experience, I have come across trainees from almost all parts of the country. I have reached a conclusion that Indian BPO aspirants are highly trainable, especially those who have a fairly neutral accent. But English accents of people from northern and eastern parts of India are bit tougher to handle than that of South Indians.”
Sarma from WNS says that there is no such difference but “It’s more specific to the job requirement”.
A training manager boasting on being a South Indian says, “South Indians can adapt fast and understand communication better than the trainees from other parts”
Paul says, “Communication Skills is the only major variation on a regional basis” but he didn’t grade any particular region.
Well, there is a tendency among most of the South Indians to pronounce the letter ‘H’ in any word even if the ‘H’ is fundamentally silent in Basic English language like ‘HONEST’.
The trainees from North-eastern states cannot pronounce certain letters like ‘T’.
Some face problems pronouncing ‘S’ in different ways. For them, words like ‘Shower’, ‘Shades’, and ‘Shit’ are ‘Sower’,’Sades’ and ‘Sit’.
So, the actual problem lies with almost all the regions, the adaptable and the non-adaptables are present in all the regions.
The Indian languages have different scripts, the basis of the languages the moderns speak. So, it naturally differs from one region to the other as they all have their own accent for the same words and all are correct according to the scripts.
Some alphabetical letters are not even present in some of the languages. So, it’s quite obvious for them to find it tough to adapt to a US or UK accent.
The American pronunciation is also confusing. Even in the US, the letter ‘T’ is pronounced in four different ways. The Blacks, Whites and huge population of Spanish, Chinese, and all other races constitute US and it becomes impossible to adapt each and every accent.
Again from Bhagat’s Novel, “You might think the Americans and their language are straightforward. Far from it – with them each letter can be pronounced several different ways.”
An Example with the letter ‘T’
“With this letter, Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent so ‘internet’ becomes ‘innernet’ and ‘advantage’ becomes ‘advannage’. The second way is when T and N merge – ‘written’ becomes ‘writn’ and ‘certain’ becomes ‘certn’. The third sound is when T is in the middle. There, it sounds like a D – ‘daughter' is ‘daughder’ and ‘water’ is ‘wauder’. The last category if you still care, is when Americans say T actually like a T. This happens when T is in the beginning of the word like ‘table’ or ‘stumble’ ……………And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another, more painful story”
In some cases, the Indian BPO workers receive calls from Indians in UK and US but speak in English over the entire conversation with the pretence to be someone from the US or UK. For instance, a Tamil BPO executive in an outbound process makes a telemarketing call to a Tamil customer living in US with the motive to sell a credit card.
But the BPO agent needs to follow the same script and cannot utter a word using her mother tongue as it’s against company’s policy.
Now, if the whole idea is to convince the customer to buy the credit card by making him feel comfortable through an effective conversation, then why is the pretence hindering the sales pitch?
The question of comfortability arises because the clients expect the Indian employees to adapt the US accent. They believe that a US customer can only believe a US telemarketer or US agent.
But the trend of pretence is coming down, with vendors like Microsoft revealing the locations and identity of the agents in their global support.
Sanyasi believes that initially, the practice of pretence was in place but in most of the inbound processes, but now the location from where the call is being answered is revealed to customers.
Sanyasi questions, “How long you can fool them”?
With such wide variations on both sides of the communication, it’s not possible to speak like until and unless one is born and brought up in US.
The training modules are to be looked upon closely to get the profession ahead and
Add Value India trainer, Paul says “Training modules as I have seen is used as “One size fits all”, “off the shelf” etc. I firmly believe that we trainers should customize our content to suit the objective of the program and not just to keep the trainees happy as most of the trainers do”.
Sarma from WNS says “People are the most important asset in the BPO industry. At WNS we have focused on building the capabilities of our employees along various dimensions, depending on the career aspirations of the employee.”
He further adds, “We concentrate on three areas, Industry domain expertise, Functional domain expertise and professional domain expertise. In Industry domain expertise, we provide industry knowledge training on a regular basis to ensure our employees are sensitized to the nuances of the industry they represent. Functional domain expertise – an extensive process or functional training is undertaken and initially this can spans from 4 – 6 weeks. Periodic refresher programmes are also conducted. Professional domain expertise is to ensure career development of our employees we have set up the WNS Learning Academy which imparts professional development training to the employees in the areas of leadership development, soft skills, language training among others. We have also tied up with an educational institute to offer Executive Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management to our employees”.
Throwing some more light on the Process level, Sanyasi says, “We are looking ahead for the process level training, those which are more generic and doesn’t reveal much of confidential information”.
Shann Kunder from Evolv, a training firm, says, “Training Methodology includes Audio-Lingual Method, Role-plays, Interactive approach in the training session. Moreover, we stress on language and culture training like acquiring a Global accent and culture (American, British and Australian, Canadian and South East Asian) and different forms of communication. Other areas are also looked upon like behavioural and functional training”
Emerging competition for India
But lately the companies have been setting up shops across emerging BPO nations in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. Nations like Kenya, Philippines and Brazil are coming up as well.
Raman Roy, a veteran entrepreneur in BPO industry and Quatrro BPO Solutions managing director had said, “While at the associate level, the Philippines has talent that is comparable or superior to their Indian counterparts, there is a complete void at middle and senior management level. It’s largely Indian executives who fill this void at Indian, local and captive BPO firms in the Philippines”.
Lower property rates and slew of fiscal incentives and large English-speaking population, are the factors that’s positioning Philippines as a major rival outsourcing destination for India
Apart from the capital, Manila, call centres are being set up in other places like Cebu in Philippines.
Indian BPO firms have been losing senior employees over the past one year to BPO companies in the Philippines. The local firms offer superior pay packets to executives to get rid of talent crunch at senior and middle management positions in the Philippines.
Sources suggest that Microsoft and Citibank have moved some of their processes to from India to Philippines. There is a significant movement of voice processes to emerging destinations like the Philippines and Eastern Europe. Companies groom and train for the local talent manage the operations in these emerging operations in due course.
Manila was ranked second among outsourcing destinations in Asia-Pacific just behind Bangalore. The BPO industry in the Philippines currently employs over 3 lakh people.
Companies like Genpact, Sitel and Intelenet hiring people in India in droves for their Philippine operations. MNCs like Citibank and Accenture have operations in that country. Domestic companies are also at growing spree in rival countries.
Now, Wipro’s BPO division has set up a business process outsourcing (BPO) centre at Curitiba in Brazil to provide shared services to AmBev, the largest brewery in Latin America. Wipro has presence in Eastern European countries too.
The Desi Touch
People from Non-English schooling background have an obvious area to put 200% effort to get into an international call centre. But lately, the mushrooming of domestic call centres has changed the criteria of required skill sets. The domestic processes provide support to the local customers of large multinationals and even the national players which require people with strong hold on any Hindi and respective regional language.
The rural crowd is also gradually entering the industry. Villages of Bihar, Karnataka already have a presence of rural BPOs. If this works out, it would be far more cost-effective for the companies as the cost in the salaries as well as rate of attrition will come down.
Moreover, there are trainees coming from the rural areas plying in the international call centres though it’s not an easy job to adapt not only to the required skill sets but also to the environment which is totally different from the rural soil.
Paul says, “Current trends suggest rural areas’ whereas Sanyasi believes that it’s still the urban areas from where the crowd comes.
Sanyasi says, “A trainee from a place like Bangalore would naturally find it easier than someone from rurals”
A training manager at a large BPO firm says, “Someone coming from rural areas will be more committed and more dedicated to put all the effort to achieve the best as that particular aspirant will understand the value of such big opportunity. So, if the commitment level is high, then there’s no question of failure”.
Nasscom initiated Nasscom Assessment of Competence (NAC) test was planned to be rolled out some two years back to enhance the reach of the ITeS-BPO industry to tier II and tier III cities and spread awareness about the sector’s job opportunities.
The then Nasscom president Kiran Karnik during a Nasscom India ITES BPO Strategy Summit that the NAC programme aimed at enhancing the skill sets of candidates willing to enter the IT/BPO industry.
Karnik said, “A vast talent potential is lying untapped as its skills are yet to be upgraded to the level required by the IT and BPO industry. The Nasscom Assessment of Competence programme will assess the skill sets of each candidate and award grades. If the candidate’s scores are low, he/she can get trained in the necessary skill sets before applying for a job”.
The Nasscom Assessment of Competence test a candidate based on the parameters like written and spoken English, communication skills, keyboard abilities, quantitative, logical and analytical skills.
But the industry constituencies share a mixed opinion about the test.
Paul from Add Value training says he is unaware of such test.
Hero Mindmine’s Sanyasi says, “Every company knows its requirements and accordingly they recruit, some of them even conduct tests based on their own parameters”
The training manager opines the same saying, “Well, it’s not just workable in our organization. We understand our client’s requirements the best and accordingly we recruit and train.”
Only WNS came out saying that it considers the NAC. Sarma informs, “WNS is engaged with Nasscom on NAC”.
Sarma throws some light on the areas where the aspirants as well as existing BPO executives need to work further to become unquestionable. Sarma says, “Client discussions are increasingly moving towards business outcomes which go beyond cost savings. To deliver outcome based solutions, service providers will need to build industry knowledge in addition to process excellence. Executives should focus on building domain expertise – be it industry or functional.
But there are other parameters too to ponder upon, especially the matters like client data security and human values at work place.
Last week’s a strange case is also an example of a dangerous mischief by a call centre. Abbey bank customer George Bates, aged 23, had to pay a big price for giving less-than- enthusiastic feedback in a post-call customer satisfaction survey. The next day, Bates found his account locked, debit card swallowed and his overdraft facility withdrawn. The call centre executive in India even changed his bank records to make him a 33-year-old Ugandan divorcée after getting bad customer satisfaction scores.
Showing concerns over matters like data theft, Paul says, “Data Manipulation and Data Thefts… These are the major concern especially in the lesser known BPOs”.
Global Financial Meltdown and its impact
There is no doubt that the global financial meltdown brought a sense of insecurity among the aspirants as well as the incumbents.
Few companies are even adopting the cost-cutting measures by cutting down the expenses incurred through outsourcing the training activities to the third party vendors.
Global financial meltdown has been a great cause for worry among a large contingent of IT and BPO companies in India. Has it affected the BPO sector largely or still in control or has the demand for BPO jobs has come down?
Sarma confidently says, “At WNS about 20% of our work is voice-based. We continue to see strong demand for voice-based services. The BPO market remains under-penetrated. The global BPO market is estimated at about $450 billion and India-centric BPO last year comprised only $8.4billion, which is roughly 2% of the global market. This clearly reflects the potential of the industry.”
Sanyasi says, “The financial crunch must be a factor in job cuts but that’s not the only reason. The performance matters too.”.
Paul says, “No the demand for jobs have not come down yet, however the lucrative pay packages have come down but they are being compensated by other offers and facilities such as higher education, gym facilities, day care centers etc. Well it’s still under control presently, however I feel that this is going to get worse if this melt down trend continues. I have seen BPO’s already facing problems financially and it will become worse as this meltdown continues”
On cost-cutting measures, Paul speaks out, “Well in this case I speak only for myself. Our clients have never compromised in quality like us. Cost cutting is the need of the hour but not at the expense of training. This is the time when training is most requires in changing the attitudes of people working in BPOs and this can be done only by professional trainers, please bear in mind I emphasise on trainers and not on Training Institutes and Brand Names”.
There are thousands working in BPOs in Bangalore, Gurgaon, Noida, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and other IT and BPO hubs of India. Not all of them complain against regular night-shifts or against the bowing down to English speaking people.
Maybe they understand the value of their bread and butter. Or are they expecting India to become economic superpower and give it back to the same customers from US and UK when they will attend the calls from Indians and get frustrated?
India has 25 official languages and innumerable unofficial languages. The training Industry looks safe. X
Call Center worker takes revenge on customer - IT Examiner