Spoken English: The Backbone of the BPO industry

Picture this – A customer service executive in an Indian BPO works in a business process that requires investigating customervproblems related to retail banking. The investigation involves written and verbal correspondence with overseas customers, who are native speakers of the English language, in order to give updates, assurances, and eventually a resolution to their problems. Customers who contact the parent company of the BPO tend to be upset and expect a speedy resolution of their query.  Calling a customer is always a faster option to wrap up a query, as compared to writing a business letter.  Calling also saves the customer the suspense of knowing whether they’re receiving a resolution, besides the opportunity for the customer service executive to offer real-time verbal assurances about quality. However, despite the obvious desirable outcomes of a telephonic interaction with a customer, this employee rarely picks up the phone to talk to customers. His unwillingness to talk to a customer is rooted in his limited language and communication skills. Nevertheless, this limitation remains under the management’s radar with no grave concerns raised about his performance
since this person is able to function in his role reasonably well by adhering to business procedures and policies, including religiously writing largely scripted business letters to customers!   Customers who do not receive calls from this person have a service experience which is different from what they desire.  The ultimate consequence for the company is loss of business as some of these
customers are not completely convinced of assured service standards and hence decide to do business with the company’s competitors.

The above vignette highlights an important aspect of employment in a BPO business – there are often ingenious ways to get around personal limitations in communication skills when interfacing with customers who are native speakers of the English language. Even as employees manage to perform as per the company’s expectations, they might not be doing what is best for the business – talking to customers.  The stark and simple fact about the BPO industry is that business process outsourcing tends to take place from English-speaking countries to those where English is not the first language.  This entails that a BPO employee who is required to invest a significant amount of time and effort in speaking to customers, actually has adequate facility with the English language. While language training programs and online self-learning modules can help build telephone etiquettes and drive home the importance of standard parameters of communication skills such as avoiding fillers, varying one’s acknowledgement,  appropriate greeting and closing lines etc, these methods cannot teach an employee spoken English language skills. Especially, the ability to understand and respond verbally to native speakers of the language is not something that can be taught in an induction program before an employee hits the floor.  Let’s face it – although communication goes beyond language skills, the latter is still a core competency within communication that cannot be substituted justifiably!
                With the multi-billion dollar Indian BPO industry being attacked in recent times by political rhetoric reflecting anti-outsourcing sentiments from the US as well as actual outsourcing bans as in the case of Ohio, there is a need to relook standards of spoken English language proficiency that BPOs in India are willing to accept for incoming recruits. This relook is pragmatic because customer satisfaction over the telephone is intrinsically linked to communication and
language skills of the employee. A collective build up of dissatisfaction with customer service from non-English speaking countries will only serve to fuel further anti-outsourcing sentiment in the west.  Adding to this urgency is rising competition from other hotspots for outsourcing such as the Philippines, China or countries in Latin America. In these countries, overall standards of English proficiency might be higher or improving rapidly due to factors such as
more concerted governmental efforts to promote the English language and greater cultural familiarity with the west.
Traditional methods of assessing language competency by language trainers are cumbersome and are often fraught with subjective decisions.  What progressive BPOs that rely on language and culture training programs need to understand is that the steady stream of hopefuls seeking BPO jobs should be screened in a standardized, efficient and reliable manner that reduces or even better, eliminates human involvement completely.  Given the wide range of business processes within a company, each with varying ratios of non-voice to voice components, such a screening would also eliminate wrong matches between language capability and the business process requirement. The cost of a wrong match is not apparent right away or even in the long run, as in the case of the employee in the vignette. However, when more and more such individuals, who are skilled in other aspects and would be better suited to other responsibilities, find their way to speaking roles they are unwilling or incapable of performing, the end result for the BPO
will be a disconnect with customer needs, eventually leading to loss of brand reputation and business.
Clearly, the Indian BPO industry needs to take major strides in the direction of upgrading the pool of proficient English-language speakers in order to stay ahead of the race and achieve their business goals for their parent companies in the west.
 – Prashant Banerjee
 The author is the Marketing Head, Pearson Clinical and Talent Assessment. He can be reached
at prashant.banerjee@pearson.com for queries and comments. The article appeared in Deccan Herald in August, 2011.
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