lunes, 8 de diciembre de 2003

Un paso mas alla en la competencia: en los call-centers de la India, estan enseñando a los teleoperadores a "pensar en Ingles" y a hablar con un acento neutro, para no disgustar a los clientes. Esto si que es calidad de servicio a los clientes y un serio intento de frenar el enfado de los americanos, por todo el trabajo que se esta contratando ultramar.

India's call centres drop the fake accents
By Khozem Merchant
Published: December 7 2003 20:27
Financial Times

You can't turn an Indian into an American in three weeks [of training]," says Ali Potia in a North American accent that he was paid to pass on to young Indian workers at a call centre linked to AT&T, the US telecommunications company.

Amid renewed controversy - and indignation - about Indian accents blurring communications with customers in the US, Mr Potia, a voice trainer born in Bombay and educated in Montreal, is one of many who see the dispute as spurious. "Does it matter what you sound like so long as the job is done? That is to give customers what they want. As for the phoney accent, the guys at the other end [of the line] just don't buy it," he says.

Indian accents seem to have aggrieved US customers of Dell, the computer maker that employs 3,000 call centre workers in India. "Issues about accents" were raised, says Dell India, prompting the company to announce at the end of November that it was shifting some of its customer enquiries service from Bangalore back to Texas.

Dell subsequently said its decision was a routine "rebalancing of tasks". But the development, which coincides with rising political and union worries about the steady flow of call centre and back office jobs from the UK and US to India, has raised a touchstone issue.

India's call centres have been caricatured as places where college-age Indians "speak America by night and live India by day", says Julian Gurupatham of Convergeon, a training agency in Bangalore.

Yet as Indian call centres become part of the daily lives of people in the US and the UK, a subtle shift is taking place. Call centres are moving from the minefield of teaching national accents to teaching safe, neutral, international accents.

Western customers' initial fascination and disbelief at the accents of the Indian operators has given way to irritation as they realise that "Sam round the corner" was really "Samaydurai in Chennai". Once seen as "cute", now a false US or British accent grates as people become aware of jobs in rich countries moving overseas.

A neutral accent, progressively enhanced with idiomatic phrases relevant to particular countries, also makes staff more internally mobile as they move from speaking to people in Crewe, to those in Wyoming, to newly emerging markets such as Australia. This in turn cuts training costs.

A neutral accent allows a call centre agent to focus on the problem rather than the superficial need for a particular accent. He or she becomes a more careful and capable listener.

"Now our focus is unquestionably on teaching our staff to listen, understand and interpret, rather than speak as such," says Vikram Talwar, who heads EXL in Delhi, a call centre whose 3,000 employees speak daily to customers in the US and the UK. Good listening is crucial in countries with wide regional variations in accent and dialect, such as the UK. "We'd sooner concentrate on listening and minimise talking to someone with a strong Welsh or Scottish accent. This really aids problem-solving," he says.

Call centre managers cite several reasons for this evolution. One is that Indians speak very fast in their mother tongues, particularly Delhi Punjabi, northern Hindi and southern Tamil. When they switch to English, the average Indian speaks 180 words a minute, against 120 words by the average American, 90 by a Briton and 70 by people in the deep south of the US.

Trainers say 120 words a minute is the desirable speed in a conversation that can contain unsettling and emotive phrases: "Madam, your rising debts are no longer acceptable" or "What do you mean, you don't have a modem, sir?"

Indians' English conversation is often translated from their mother tongue. A phrase such as "tonight" is rendered "today, night". "Thank you" is frequently said at the wrong moment. The overall effect can be unintentionally to halt a conversation. Indeed, trainers say Indians' "conversational English" is highly deficient, a function of an education system whose focus is on the written word.

"A call centre agent will listen in English, translate into a mother tongue [Hindi], think of a reply in Hindi and speak to the customer in English. It makes for poor sentence structure and an unhappy customer," says Diane Christian, who heads human resources at Infowavz, a call centre in Mumbai. The trick is to employ people who think in English, she says.

Dell, AOL and other foreign companies that operate call centres in India outsource some training, though the current dispute over accents may hasten moves to do more in-house.

External trainers say foreign-owned call centres tend to be under the greatest pressure to keep costs down and are prone to squeeze training to save money. Foreign clients usually stick to training in "processes" - how to chase bills, check a credit history, correct the details of an address. The training they tend to outsource is for voice, accent, cultural sensitivity and soft skills such as "empathy" (some callers are debtors) and the engaging, harmless chatter in the lull while data are being keyed in.

But external trainers warn that foreign companies can hit problems when they try to teach soft skills themselves.

"Self-training is not good because it's not a core competence," says Mr Talwar at EXL. The upshot is that remedial training has to be undertaken which is often hasty and improvised and takes place while people work.

"We've had to correct training that's gone wrong because companies are in such a hurry to roll out and ramp up services," says Mr Gurupatham at Convergeon. "When we go in under these conditions it is no surprise that workers are hostile towards us and training can be ineffective."

There are also complaints that the focus on accents that Dell's move has produced obscures the training efforts of third-party call centres - owned by specialist, usually Indian, companies - as opposed to centres owned directly by foreign companies such as Dell.

"We can't afford to get the training wrong. It's our differentiator. India is our profit centre whereas for captives [foreign-owned centres that provide services to sister companies] India is a cost centre," says Aashu Calapa of ICICI OneSource, a call centre in Bangalore. Daksh e-services, which employs about 6,000 mostly in Delhi, says training costs amount to a quarter of its overheads.

And there is still no shortage of young Indians ready to be trained. Convergeon, one of the largest external trainers in Bangalore, has about 350 students on its books at any time, each paying Rs10,000 (£130), - slightly more than the starting salary for a job at a call centre - for 144 hours of training over four weeks. Many squeeze in the course between classes, keen to get a job that may pay more than their father's salary. This is an unexpected early bounty, allowing them to save for six to 12 months before quitting, typically for higher education.