If only Indians would talk like Americans
By Siddharth Srivastava
NEW DELHI - The accent now is on accents. India's much touted English-speaking back office soldiers who man the 24-hour call centers of multinationals round the world have taken some flak in the recent past. The problem is that they certainly do not speak their English the way Americans do, and even the British English with which they are much more familiar tends to take on a unique flavor.
This can be more than just an irritant, as vouchsafed by Dell Inc, the world's largest computer seller, which decided to shift its customer support work for corporate clients back to the US, in November. And last month, Lehman Brothers also decided to take back its internal computer help desk, which had been outsourced to Indian IT major Wipro, due to dissatisfaction with the skills offered in India. One of the dissatisfied customers widely quoted in news reports is Ronald Kronk, a Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania, who said that he spent four months trying to solve a problem that resulted in his being billed for two computers.
Kronk has been quoted as saying: "They're extremely polite, but I call it sponge listening - they just soak it and say - I can understand why you're angry - but nothing happens. I even said to them once that I'd like to speak to someone in the US. They gave me a number, but it's a recording and I can't speak to a human being."
There are even reports of racial customer screams - "You bloody Indians, you don't get it, do you?"
These problems, at one level, seem inevitable. In spite of TV and e-mail, people living thousands of kilometers away and without local knowledge cannot always answer inquiries authoritatively. According to reports, England is full of jokes about operators in India who master Scots or Midlands accents, but falter over small physical details. Kate, a doctor based in England, recently on a visit to India, told this correspondent that grappling with rail inquiries in the United Kingdom can be quite hazardous as often the information is incorrect as the person at the other end just does not understand the query.
The fear in India, as exemplified by the Dell and Lehman Brothers examples, is that the quality of the Indian Business and Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry might not be as good as some would believe.
Indeed, the threat to the BPO industry is generally seen as one of resistance in the developed world to jobs shifting to countries such as India. Yet the economic benefits in terms of lower costs are so substantial that firms often cannot afford not to tap into India's potential, even if it means some political backlash in the home country.
A recent instance quoted is the Indiana Senate panel's refusal to support a sweeping bill to limit foreign workers (read Indians) in the American state's contract jobs. Union commerce and industries minister Arun Jaitley said in parliament recently that the Indian government has been assured by the US government as well as industry that they would not approve opposition to business outsourcing to countries such as India, as brought in through legislation in New Jersey and some other states.
The Indian BPO industry has grown at a mind-boggling 60-70 percent annually, with revenues rising from US$565 million in 1999-2000 to almost $2.4 billion in 2002-2003. The projections look brighter too - employment of over a million people by 2006, up from the current 200,000. Revenues are estimated to increase to well over the current $2.4 billion mark by 2006. It is said that while the Indian IT industry took 15-20 years to start making its presence felt, the Indian BPO industry has done it in less than 10 years.
According to an Economic Times Intelligence Group study, ET Knowledge Series, call centers account for almost 65 to 70 percent of the Indian BPO industry in terms of revenues and numbers. And herein lies the problem, as most of the growth has been at the lower end of the skill pyramid.
Indeed, according to observers, dissatisfaction with the quality of manpower in India in relatively less-skilled services could result in an immediate flight of jobs should even a slight price differential happen. Examples quoted are shoe manufacturer Nike, which moved from South Korea to Malaysia and then to Indonesia. Another instance is competition that a country such as Bangladesh provides to Indian exports at the lower end of the garment industry due to lower infrastructure and labor costs. The writing is for all to see - that no resting place is permanent. Each is determined by cost effectiveness. India must guard its lead, which is the essence of globalization.
The warning has been sounded by Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who recently said that the next round of the globalization of jobs might see China, Malaysia and the Philippines competing with India in what Tong called the world's "information technology and back office". HSBC, Citibank and Standard Chartered already have service centers in Shanghai and Guangzhou in China, and Cyberjaya and Penang in Malaysia.
The prescription is twofold - re-training call center executives adequately to retain the current business, as well as moving up the value chain in terms of the quality of jobs outsourced.
According to Sabira Merchant, a speech-voice consultant, on how Indians speak English: Indians have excellent control over written English, yet when it comes to pronunciation, we do not always sound right. The problem is while Americans think in English, we think in our mother tongue and translate it while speaking. As a nation we do speak good English. That is why most Indians score easily over people of other nationalities. But it will still take time for Indians to speak with a polished accent and fluency."
Yet call center executives are confident that business is not going to move in a hurry to other Asian countries. As Prashant Bhardwaj, a manager with a leading call center says: "By the time the other countries produce the required English speaking manpower, the world will be used to the Indian way of speaking and business won't shift unless there is a substantial cost differential. A Chinese speaking English will take a whole lot more time to get used to when Indians are already being spoken to on such a large scale."
However, experts warn that the Indian BPO strategy that concentrates only on the less-skilled jobs is fraught with risks. At the lower end, competition tends to be entirely in terms of price. And it is quite possible that in the near future countries with much lower labor standards could become price competitive, leading to large-scale cuts in wage and infrastructure costs.
The long-term solution to sustaining the ongoing BPO boom will have to provide for opportunities of career growth within the industry and working conditions will have to be kept at levels that keep attrition rates to a minimum, in the face of price competition. In the more traditional IT industry, even if local firms offered lower-end jobs, individuals always had the option of moving to greener pastures abroad. But the value of the BPO lies in location. Hence the long term-sustainability of BPO will thus depend on the quality of outsourcing, industry-specific training and a constant endeavor to move up the value chain, instead of being counted just by numbers and cost. And inculcating the right diction.