A basic skill required for a call-center job is fluency in spoken English.
Agents have to be fluent enough to hold a conversation in real time; after all
they don’t have the luxury of time to carefully frame their sentences
correctly and quickly go to Merriam-Webster online to check for pronunciations.
Customer care, the part of the business that is heavily dependent on voice,
is the main revenue earner for the industry. According to Nasscom, of a $21—24
billion Indian BPO market, the revenue from customer care will be around $8—8.5
billion by 2008, with the runner up being HR at a distant revenue earning of
$3.5—4 billion. The current pattern reinforces this. According to a survey
conducted by Business World last year, the revenue of most BPO companies is in
favor of voice over non-voice. The voice to non-voice ratio of Wipro Spectramind
is 85:15, that of HCL BPO is 70:30, and Daksh eServices and ICICI OneSource are
With so much at stake, the question to ask is: does our ‘large,
English-speaking workforce’ indeed speak an English that is internationally
Fluency in language is mostly developed at the school level, thanks to a good
English-language curriculum. Sure you can read up Wren and Martin as an adult,
but how many people do you know who do that? Now consider this. According to
Nasscom, there are around 245,000 ITeS-BPO professionals in the country today.
Then there are tens of thousands more who work under the part-time or flexi
models. All these people couldn’t possibly have gone to one of the better
schools in India, considering that the average school fee (including school fee,
private tuition fee, and conveyance) is approximately
Rs 4,000 in Mumbai, Rs 3,500 in Delhi, and a comparatively lesser Rs 1,700 in
Moreover, a survey on schools in India, done by Outlook magazine in 2001,
lists 70 schools as India’s ‘finest’. This list includes only the 10
finest schools from teh categories of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkatta,
Chennai, Hyderabad, and residential schools and you can safely add another 100
schools to this list to take the number of the ‘top’ schools in India to
170. Surely, all-or even many-of our agents do not come from these schools.
In fact, Pramath Sinha, a principal at McKinsey has been quoted as saying,
"Apart from Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore the quality of graduates applying
for jobs in the ITeS industry needs to improve. The quality of English is not
very good in small towns."
Raman Roy, an industry veteran, says, "20—30 percent of our country’s
resources are charcoal. I have some 3,250 people in training today. I will be
happy to hire another 3,000. But I can’t find the people."
That brings us to the second question: Do our agents enter the industry as
Eliza Doolittles and are then rigorously trained to achieve the internationally
acceptable standards in communication? When we posed this question to Roy, his
answer was, "I agree with you 100 percent. We can only put less than five
percent of our people on the floor, without any communications training."
Asheesh Gupta, business head, Hero Mindmine too agrees. But, he is more
cautious, saying, "Most of us speak an English that is acceptable to Indian
standards. Training is required to recalibrate it to international
Indians’ communication skills certainly require polishing. We have too many
dialects (the perennial Punjabi-Malayali battle rages on), we speak too fast
(how many times have you been asked by a foreigner to slow down?), we are, well,
largely xenophobic (we take a while to settle in front of 6 foot 2 inch firangs),
and we don’t understand their accents easily. (How many of us will be able to
follow American films if the visuals were taken away? Largely, we are able to do
so by associating the visuals with the voice.)
Enter Professor Higgins, the trainers, who are busy turning lead into gold.
They train staff to fix all the above issues. So, in the communications’ arena
there’s training for listening and comprehension of foreign accents,
neutralization of mother-tongue influence in accent, reduction of Indianisms,
rate of speech adjustments, and cross-cultural sensitivity.
There is also training for grammar and sentence construction, which is a
longer-term proposition though. Explains Atul Kunwar, managing director, global
outsourcing, eFunds International, "For a scripted process you require
basic English-level comprehension and sentence-construction skills. But when you
move to a free-flowing conversation model the agent needs to speak anything from
high-flowing English to even fifth-grade English, depending on the caller."
Who are these trainers and where do they come from? Till five years ago,
nobody wanted a trainer, few wanted to be trainers, and even the good trainers
had to content with paltry part-time incomes of about Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 for
a full-day workshop. Today, trainers are a sought-after lot, at least in the
call centers. Says Gupta of Hero Mindmine, "I have seen companies
masquerading an agent with a one-year experience as a communications trainer in
But, better companies have quite different standards. Most of Spectramind’s
trainers, for instance, are postgraduates, many having studied at LSR (a
premier, Delhi college known for its English course) or abroad. One of
Spectramind’s trainers has taught English language at premier schools in Delhi
and has also trained adults for 12 years before she joined Spectramind.
Trainers also make a lot more money today. Rather, companies are willing to
pay them much more. Call centers typically pay around Rs 25,000 to Rs 35,000 per
month to trainers with experience, with training managers getting even more.
EXL, for example, has a salary band of Rs 20,000 to Rs one lakh per month.
Pure-play training companies (such as NIIT, Aptech, and Hero Mindmine), on the
other hand, have training bands that go beyond Rs one lakh a month also and
trainers are given additional benefits such as profit sharing. Explains Gupta,
"For us, trainers are like line managers and not support function
Another reason that trainers are on the ‘wanted list’ today is that a lot
of companies prefer in-house trainers and are developing their own courseware.
eServe, GTL, EXL, and Wipro Spectramind have 10, 11, 14, and 35 internal
communications trainers respectively. Each company also uses the services of
external training vendors. Having been in the industry longer than most other
players, e-Funds has been able to evolve its own training content which is today
certified by various international bodies. HCL Technologies too conducts 95
percent of its programs internally though they occasionally hire third-party
Agents too need to put in a lot of hard work, what with training being an
ongoing process. According to Sumit Bhattacharya, executive VP, HCL BPO,
"We have a range of programs such as refreshers, remedials, and advanced
skills that cater to the levels of requirements." Even when agents change
jobs, as they very frequently do, they have to undergo training. Says Kunwar,
"Even if a person has worked in a call center before, we put him through
And what happens at the end of all the hard work that both the trainers and
trainees put? If Bhattacharya is to be believed, then 85 to 90 percent of
trainees meet international standards after the training period.
So, what’s the bottom line? Yes, the spiel that India offers a large pool
of English-speaking workforce is correct. But, a considerable amount of
polishing and honing is required before this pool reaches international
On a lighter note, and as a strong nationalist, I can put forth an
alternative theory: maybe the international level of acceptance of
English-language skills is actually lower than the Indian levels of acceptance.
That is why they are willing to accept our Elizas. After all, don’t all those
American desis always say, "Our children are smarter than the Americans’.
They get much better grades than the American children in school."