"English-speaking, back office soldiers who man the 24-hour call
centres of multinationals round the world have been the subject of
flak recently. The reason: They do not speak their English the way
the Americans or the British would like."


The problem isn't the accent.

The problem is that they are taking jobs from Americans and others and their
accent betrays them.

Outsourcing prospects: It's not just about accents


NEW DELHI - The accent now is on accents. India's much-touted,
English-speaking, back office soldiers who man the 24-hour call
centres of multinationals round the world have been the subject of
flak recently. The reason: They do not speak their English the way
the Americans or the British would like.

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 United States
in November. Last month, it was disclosed that Lehman Brothers had
also decided to take back its internal computer help desk, outsourced
to Indian information technology company Wipro, due to
dissatisfaction with the skills offered in India.

One dissatisfied customer quoted in news reports was Mr Ronald
Kronk, a Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania, who said he spent
the last four months trying to resolve a problem that left him being
billed for two computers.

Mr 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 ranting: 'You bloody
Indians; you don't get it, do you?'

These problems, at one level, were inevitable. In spite of TV and e-
mail, people living thousands of kilometres away and without local
knowledge cannot always answer queries authoritatively.

According to reports, jokes abound in England about operators in
India who master Scottish 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 rail inquiries in
Britain can be quite hazardous as often the information given is

In India, the Dell and Lehman Brothers examples highlight the
doubts now brewing over the quality of the Business and Process
Outsourcing (BPO) industry.

It used to be that resistance in the developed world to jobs
shifting to countries like India was the threat to the BPO industry.
But that was overcome as firms recognised the substantial economic
benefits to be reaped. Even the political backlash at home was
overcome over time. A recent instance that has been quoted is the
Indiana Senate panel's refusal to support a sweeping Bill to keep
foreign workers (read Indians) out of American state contract jobs.

Trade and Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley said in Parliament
recently that the Indian government had been assured by the US
government as well as industry that they would not approve opposition
to business outsourcing to countries like India, brought in through
legislation in New Jersey and some other states. The problem lies

The Indian BPO industry has been growing at a mind-boggling 60 to
70 per cent annually, with revenues growing from US$565 million
(S$960 million) in 1999-2000 to almost US$2.4 billion in 2002-2003.

It is said that while the Indian IT industry took 15 to 20 years to
start making its presence felt, the Indian BPO industry has done it
in less than 10 years.

According to the Economic Times Intelligence Group study ET
Knowledge Series, call centres account for 65 to 70 per cent of the
Indian BPO industry, in terms of revenues and numbers. And herein
lies the problem: Most of the growth has been at the lower end of the
skills pyramid.

Analysts say dissatisfaction with the quality of manpower employed
in relatively less skilled services could result in an immediate
flight of jobs, should even a slight price differential develop.

Examples quoted include the trail left by Nike, the shoe
manufacturer that moved from South Korea to Malaysia to Indonesia in
search of lower wages. Another is the competition that a country such
as Bangladesh provides to the Indian garment industry due to lower
infrastructure and labour costs.

The writing is on the wall for all to see - no resting place is
permanent. Each is determined by its cost effectiveness.

The warning was also sounded by Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok
Tong when he said recently that the next round of the globalisation
of jobs might see China, Malaysia and the Philippines competing with
India in what Mr Goh called the world's 'information technology and
back office'.

Banks like HSBC, Citibank and Standard Chartered already have
service centres in Shanghai and Guangzhou in China, and Cyberjaya and
Penang in Malaysia.

For India, the prescription is two-fold - re-training call centre
executives to retain the current business, and moving up the value
chain in terms of the quality of jobs outsourced here.

According to Ms Sabira Merchant, a speech-voice
consultant: '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 while speaking. As a nation, we 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.'

Some call centre executives are confident business is not going to
move in a hurry to other Asian countries. Mr Prashant Bhardwaj, a
manager with a leading call centre, said: '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 an Indian BPO strategy that concentrates
only on lower-skilled jobs is fraught with risks. At the lower end,
competition tends to be entirely in terms of price. It is quite
possible that countries with much lower labour standards could soon
become price-competitive, leading to large-scale cuts in wage and
infrastructure costs for companies.

The long-term solution to sustaining India's BPO boom will have to
provide for opportunities of career growth within the industry.
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, if local firms offered lower-
end jobs, trained individuals always had the option of moving to
greener pastures abroad. In the BPO industry, however, its value lies
in location. Hence, the long-term sustainability of the BPO industry
will depend upon the quality of jobs outsourced, industry-specific
training and a constant endeavour to move up the value chain, instead
of mere numbers and cost. And inculcating the right diction.

The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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