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 at 70:30.
With so much at stake, the question to ask is: does our 'large, English-speaking workforce' indeed speak an English that is internationally acceptable?
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 Bangalore.
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 standards."
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 desperation."
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 staff."
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 services also.
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 training."
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 standards.
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."