Call centres boom in Asia

  • Business
  • Tuesday, 02 Sep 2003

BANGALORE: In the past four weeks, Sadhana Verma has picked up tips on American baseball, learnt American history and spent hours watching Jerry Maguire and TV shows such as Baywatch and Friends

And the 23-year-old Indian college graduate gets paid for it. 

Verma is part of India's booming US$2.3bil-a-year back-office services industry, which is training thousands of graduates straight out of college in speech and culture to connect with far-flung customers. 

Thousands of miles away in Manila, prospective staff of call centre C-Cubed Inc, are grilled on their knowledge of “Americana,” including geography and their ability to comprehend accents from California to Texas. 

“We have speech and grammar training during which we get to listen to different accents from different parts of the United States so we get a feel for their accent,” says Prima Cruz, 22, who has been with C-Cubed for nearly two years. “We try to adopt a Californian accent, which is more neutral than a southern accent.” 

As global giants move business functions such as customer support, accounting, claims processing and human resource management to cheaper locations including India and the Philippines, companies are educating and training their workforce in the different ways and manners of their overseas customers. 

Aided by a large pool of English-speaking graduates and engineers, India and the Philippines are emerging as the hottest destinations for US firms farming out business to Asia. 

“We don't want our employees to live and breathe like an American when they deal with US clients, but they should be able to empathise with them,” said R. Elango, human resources chief at MsourcE, a 3,000-strong Indian back-office services firm. 

Youngsters at call centres are routinely taught to assume British or American names and get weeks of classroom training in foreign accents and communication skills. Understanding a client's business also is key: Companies train employees on insurance and tax regulations for overseas customers. 

At stake is a fast-growing business: Around 3.3 million US jobs in the services sector and US$136bil in wages are expected to move to offshore countries like India, Russia, China and the Philippines by 2015, according to Forrester Research. 

Entry-level graduates in India are paid between 8,000 rupees and 10,000 rupees (US$174-US$218) a month, about a tenth of what their US counterparts earn. In the Philippines, entry-level call centre employees earn about US$200 to US$275 a month. It may not sound like a lot, but the jobs are hot in countries where most liberal arts graduates find it difficult to get decent work. 

In India alone, about 100,000 jobs have sprung up in the past two years, doubling the industry's total workforce to about 170,000. About 60,000 people are employed in the call centre industry in the Philippines and this number is expected to rise to about 300,000 by 2008. 

At many companies, the screening process starts from the initial interview where voice trainers closely check communication skills of candidates. 

Home assignments in training classes include watching news broadcasters CNN, BBC and television shows. Trainees listen to recorded talk shows, which industry executives say helps them get an idea of the latest events happening overseas. 

“Recruits are taught tongue positions and when and how to take the breath before or after a specific word,” said G.V. Giridhar, human resources manager at 24/7 Customer Pte Ltd, a mid-sized, fast-growing Indian call centre firm. 

The stress of working long night shifts, irregular eating habits and the intensive training is a big challenge, though. 

“The jobs are surely not just about having fun. It requires a lot of grey cells and hard work,” said Elango of MsourcE. 

To cash in on the growing demand for specialised training, companies offering basic communication skills, accent training and social skills have sprung up across India. 

“Our entire training is focused on making sure that it helps agents to do a better job and satisfy his clients,” said Latika Narang, training manager at call centre firm Daksh EServices. 

India's exports from back-office services is expected to surge 54% this year from US$2.3bil reported in the past year to March 2003. 

The industry, which has emerged as a boon for the hundreds of thousands of job-hunting Indian youth, aims to hit the US$25bil export mark by 2008 and employ one million people. 

Revenue from Philippine call centres is likely to more than double to around US$370mil this year from US$173mil in 2002, according to local industry estimates. 

The National Institute for Excellence in Teleworking or NEXT, is among those that are piggybacking on the huge growth in the back-office services industry. 

Helped by American and British voice trainers working for it on a part-time basis, NEXT, whose clients include Dell Inc, HSBC and Accenture, has groomed more than 4,000 youngsters in voice, accent and etiquette. 

“We try and make fun a part of the entire learning process so that people actively participate,” said Shagufa Soundararajan, the training head at NEXT, which employs about 120 trainers. 

Settling up a link with the customers is also vital. 

“Besides the usual vocal training, we train agents on the different way in which they can show concern for the customer,” said Anuradha Verma, a senior training manager at back-office services firm ICICI OneSource. “If one of our agents hears a client coughing during a call, she would say 'Hope you get over your cold'.” – Reuters 

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