India calling

Helen Rowe reports on the unusual challenges faced by HR as the growth of
contact centres in India continues to accelerate

They have their baseball figures of speech at the ready, their north
American vowels are honed to perfection. All over India, thousands of keen
young people – many of them graduates – are working in contact centres, taking
calls not from Bombay or Calcutta, but from Michigan, California and London.

It is a phenomenon that has forced HR to centre stage. "The whole
IT-enabled service business is an HR game now," says Prashant Sahni, chief
executive officer of Tecnovate Data and Services, part of online travel agents
Ebookers.

"Technology has become a level playing field, so you can no longer get
any advantage from that. It is all about HR now."

The contact centre industry in India is still in its infancy. Although the
industry in North America is more than two decades old, contact centres were
unheard of in India until the late 1990s.

During the last couple of years, things have started to change. Companies
have woken up to the potential cost savings of up to 35 per cent in India
through lower labour costs and the large pool of university educated English
speakers with limited career opportunities.

But not everyone is convinced. Some companies, such as insurance giant Axa,
have held off for the time being, at least – after hearing anecdotes about new
recruits being shown episodes of Friends to help them understand the American
sense of humour.

Providers themselves point out the cultural difficulties they face in
training staff, and talk of too many companies with low standards entering the
market too quickly. Other sceptics have focused on the heavily accented English
spoken, a perceived lack of service culture in India, and the difficulty in
recruiting anyone who has actually worked in a call centre before.

One study last year also suggested strong resistance from UK consumers to
having their calls handled in India. The survey by Mitial Research found 60 per
cent of those questioned were strongly against the idea. The main reason given
was a fear that the trend would lead to the loss of UK jobs, their own
included.

The growth of contact centres in India and the growing criticism have thrown
up a unique set of challenges for HR. Each year in India, hundreds of thousands
of students graduate, and the number is growing annually. With the growth of
multi-national companies operating in India there are openings for them – but
the opportunities are comparatively limited.

Unlike in Europe and North America, in India, a high proportion of good
graduates are willing to look at contact centres as a career. "Some of our
people have double masters. It is all about the opportunities available,"
Sahni explains.

"The brightest people that come out of Indian universities and business
schools want to work for global consultancies such as McKinsey, very much like
elsewhere. Others, who are also very bright, see an opportunity in contact
centres to make their career. Their counterparts in the UK would not work in
them because the UK economy offers better opportunities."

The industry in India is rapidly expanding. Estimates put the current number
of call centre places at around 7,000, with nearly 15,000 expected to be
available by the end of the year. British Airways and GE Capital are just two
of the larger firms that have set up shop in India.

Agents handle e-mail enquiries as well as telephone calls, and work in
shifts around the clock, meaning there are potentially two employees for every
position. And some companies have started to experiment. Ebookers, for example,
now has 15 employees in India with European language skills, handling calls
from France and Germany.

But Indian English can be difficult to understand and many words and phrases
still in common use in India can sound antiquated to British or North American
English speakers.

UK-based Portal Net Services, a provider of outsourced contact centre
services, has about 700 seats in centres in Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Chairman Glenn Hurley recommends that applicants with particularly strong
accents be rejected at the initial selection stage. Companies can make
impressive savings, he says, but must invest heavily in training to do so.

"It is an incredible opportunity for firms, but the dialect does need
some work," Hurley says. "People don’t speak perfect English. We have
to recognise you have to put time and money into improving that. It would be
naive to think you could get away without doing so."

At the futuristic-looking Convergys call centre just outside Delhi, new
agents are joining at a rate of 250 a month. By the end of the year, there will
be nearly 2,000. Convergys runs contact centres for clients in 40 countries.
Each new recruit receives intensive voice and cultural training so they can
communicate effectively with North American callers.

India HR director at Convergys, Nandini Aggarwal, says the aim is to
"neutralise" the Indian English accent, rather than replace it.
Trainers take employees through jaw stretching exercises and concentrate on the
‘r’ sound. Changing intonation is considered important as well as slowing down
the rate of speech to make agents more easily understood.

US figures of speech, particularly sporting ones from baseball, are also
emphasised during training, where the agents also learn about US culture.

"This is a key ingredient because we need to give staff the ability to
communicate with customers, to be on the same wavelength as people thousands of
miles away," says Aggarwal.

Roleplay is designed to help employees to understand American humour.
Corridors feature collages of US film and music stars. American holidays, such
as Thanksgiving, are celebrated along with Indian ones, with special meals in
the staff restaurant.

At Ebookers, accent training is eliminated by only hiring applicants with
clear speaking voices. Its six-week training programme concentrates on product
knowledge and cultural issues instead.

"As our staff are making travel arrangements mostly for British
customers, they need to understand what is important to them, factors such as
Bank Holidays and half-term holidays," says Sahni.

"If someone says they want to travel on a Bank Holiday weekend, for
example, it is important our sales consultants don’t ask if they could travel
on another date."

Agents also learn about UK current affairs and football, so that, as Sahni
puts it, "nobody wonders why they can’t sell anything when England play
Brazil". There are plans for a weekly newsletter updating staff on topics
that might come up in conversation – everything from the latest goings on in
popular TV programmes such as Big Brother or Eastenders, to the political
scandal of the day.

The majority of contact centre agents in India see themselves building a career
in the industry. Convergys’ country manager, Jaswinder Ghumman, says young
recruits are more realistic about career progression than their US
counterparts.

"In the US it is a first job, they get the experience and move on. In
India they are more down to earth, and there is a very high level of interest
in making sure they are ready to take that next step."

But he warns that the expansion of the industry has made it easy for agents
who feel they are not advancing fast enough, to move between employers.

"They are seeking a career. Their desire and motivation is huge.
Keeping them motivated and retaining them are the challenges we now face."

Portal Net’s Hurley notes that in some centres, attrition rates are high –
18 per cent, possibly rising to 30 per cent before the end of the year.
"People are keen to learn, and if they feel they are not doing that in
their current job, they are moving elsewhere," he said.

Ebookers staff are encouraged to stay through salaries that are above the UK
equivalent. There are also opportunities for travel sales consultants with good
people management skills to rapidly move into supervisory positions, managing
up to 10 employees as team leaders, and between 30 and 70 as assistant managers
or managers.

"We have to train more here than we do in the UK. Attrition really
hurts the business – we don’t want to play that game," says Sahni.
"And if our staff don’t think they have a career path, that just doesn’t
make sense. It is not a factory. We are looking for very skilled people and
want them to know that we are offering a serious job with prospects."

The first three or four months is critical for retention, according to
Pramod Ratwani, vice-president for Asia Pacific, at Concerto Software, which
provides outsourced contact centre and software services to clients.

"Turnover is a major issue. We are seeing a lot of staff moving from
one centre to another – even within the same building." Ratwani says
companies need to concentrate on selecting the right people and supporting them
from the outset.

"At some companies 30 or 40 per cent of people hired are leaving within
the first two or three months. Some have never seen a call centre and are being
exposed to a completely different style of management, so they really need
support from the very beginning."

The lack of available middle management personnel you would find in a more
mature industry is clearly a problem for employers. Many posts were initially
filled by staff who moved over from the IT industry. But as the call centre industry
expands more posts are being created with no obvious source of people to fill
them.

Portal Net Services plans to introduce a UK-accredited qualification that
staff can work toward as a means of both bolstering middle management and
ensuring acceptable attrition rates.

"The raw material is fantastic and it is quite easy to get CEOs,"
adds Hurley. "But finding good middle management is difficult because it
is a new industry. India is trying to go from nowhere to a having a massive
industry within just a few years when it usually takes many years. It is a
potential recipe for chaos, because nobody has done it before."

General cultural issues also have a special relevance for contact centre
operators in India, because they affect the way agents interact with customers.
Many staff have travelled, usually to the UK or US, and it is rare to find
young middle class Indians without any extended family living in the West.
Nevertheless, some modes of Indian behaviour are deeply ingrained.

Mike Cast, managing director of software development company Mastek UK,
commissioned a pamphlet about doing business across cultures, after learning
that customers thought the Indian office staff were ‘too polite’. When he
looked into the issue, he realised this was a criticism, not a compliment.

"I discovered that customers did not mean it was a good thing. When I
started to dig further, I realised what they meant. If an employee got stuck on
something, they would rather read a 400 page manual than ask for help. Pride
was getting in the way."

Cast also noticed that Indian employees always deferred to authority,
whatever the circumstances. This, he says, poses a difficulty when the success
of a business depends on employees identifying problems and making them known
to managers so they can be resolved.

President of contact centre and software services provider OverC, Mark
Eichler, sees the reluctance of staff to challenge or admit a difficulty as the
down side of their positive attitude to work.

"They get their heads down and are willing to do whatever is required
to get the job done. They are highly dedicated and very talented people who do
these jobs as careers," he says.

But he adds that US managers noticed a cultural tendency for staff not to
apologise, and a consequent lack of empathy.

"The environment is more hierarchical in India, and the service culture
idea is not dominant. The challenge is to migrate the contact centre culture
from the US so that we develop a team-orientated culture. Thankfully, we have
found that the talent in India is incredibly adaptable if you train people and
show them how it is done."

As the industry continues to grow exponentially, so will the challenges for
HR. One concern is that the supply of talented recruits will not be able to
keep up with demand.

"The quality of applicants will decrease over time because everyone
will want to try their luck," says Ratwani. In fact, he adds, this is
already happening, especially away from the main cities.

"In small cities, the educational levels of the applicants is not as
impressive, so the standard of English is not as good. The pick of the crop has
already been creamed off, creating a shortage in the marketplace," he
says.

"How to continue finding and training enough people of the right
calibre to fill the vacancies being created – that, is the big challenge for
the future."

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