India's John Smiths speak perfect English. Now they have a month to become British

Working undercover in a call centre near Delhi, Rajeshree Sisodia taught young graduates who'd never driven a car to sell insurance for the AA. But getting to grips with 'EastEnders' proved harder than grasping the realities of a free market
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alex Smith has clinched his first deal. It is almost midnight and three weeks of training and hard work have paid off. He has just sold car parts and labour cover to an AA member in the UK.

Alex Smith has clinched his first deal. It is almost midnight and three weeks of training and hard work have paid off. He has just sold car parts and labour cover to an AA member in the UK.

Alex - or to use his real name, Anil Singh - removes his headset, turns around and smiles. "It felt pretty cool," he says from his desk in a call centre in Gurgaon, a sprawling satellite town 25 kilometres south-west of Delhi.

My grin mirrors his; as his voice and accent trainer, it is my job to make sure Anil sounds as much like the Brits to whom he is selling car insurance cover as he possibly can.

Thanks to my British accent, the result of being born and bred in west London, I have been hired by the call centre firm Infovision, an Indian business process outsourcing (BPO) company, to teach Indian call centre agents the subtleties of British accents and culture. Selling parts and labour cover to members of the AA isn't the company's only assignment. I am also to help with Infovision's newest challenge: to prepare other call centre staff to handle inbound directory enquiry calls from UK One.Tel customers. Both One.Tel and AA are part of the Centrica group.

I must provide the trainees with a month-long crash course in UK culture and pronunciation, from well-known television programmes such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, to festivals such as Christmas and Guy Fawkes Night. I will explain and test them on the food British people eat, the pubs they drink in, the schools they send their children to, where they do their shopping, the political parties they could vote for and how to say the names of places and famous people, as well as attempting to dispel certain cultural myths.

"It felt OK, nothing special." Anil plays it cool after managing to sell insurance to the owner of a Renault Clio, with around 68,000 miles on the clock, thousands of miles away in England.

In the next bay, Anil's colleague Manoj Batra - or Michael Baker, as he becomes for the next shift - sidles into a chair to make his first AA call.

The thinking is that call centre agents in India are more likely to be successful selling car insurance and answering enquiries if they not only sound like the John Smiths and Karen Joneses they are helping but also get to grips with the kind of lives the British lead.

"Hello. My name is Michael Baker and I'm calling from the Automobile Association, the AA ..." reads Manoj from a script on his computer screen.

His voice is barely audible over the hum of the air-conditioning and the din of agents making sales. The buzz "on the floor" is palpable, with team leaders egging on individual call centre staff to beat their sales targets.

Manoj is 22 and has been working in call centres for a year and a half. He is one of a new batch of eight agents destined to join the 70 other Infovision staff working for the AA. Having finished a call and put down his headset, he seems dejected not to have made his first sale.

"They all seem to be on answering machine," he sighs. Asked how he likes working under an alias, he says: "I don't find it unusual, though it was easier to remember the other aliases I had - Isaac or Eric - in the other call centres I worked for."

For around 13 hours a day, five days a week, he and the other call centre agents - most of whom have picked up American accents while working for BPO companies with US clients, live in a parallel universe. Vijay becomes Jim; Jaya becomes Winnie. Now they must Anglicise themselves, drinking in British culture. No easy task; they have never been to the UK and have had little exposure to British culture - other than watching David Beckham and Mr Bean on television.

At 1pm, one of the call centre's minibuses - or cabs, as they are known - comes to collect me from my home. The shift is relentless; it starts at 2.30pm and ends at 12.30am as we work according to UK time, four-and-a-half hours behind India.

The Infovision office is part of the commercial huddle that is Gurgaon. Half-completed office blocks nestle against skyscrapers bearing the names Ericsson, Tata, American Express and Gillette. Outside, chai-wallahs and shoe shiners ply their trades, seemingly oblivious to the multi-million-pound ventures going on around them.

Tajinder Sekhon, 35, a former teacher from Nepal, has found himself struggling during his mock AA call sessions with a trainer.

"It was OK," Tajinder says after handling a mock call, "but he [the trainer] came out with some very difficult questions about the inside of a car which I don't know about. First of all, we have never driven a car in our lives."

On the floor above, the 16 Delhi graduates I am training for the One.Tel project are poring over lists of common British names.

"Is it Fanny or Fenny?" asks Radha Chaudhary.

"Fanny like granny," I reply, hiding a smirk; now is not the time for jokes.

"Reena, Serena, Magdalena ..." the agents are finding that coming to terms with the finer points of British culture and language is tough going. It is my job to ensure - as far as possible - that their accents do not give them away. The irony is not lost on me that, despite my strong London accent, I would have to change my name if I were handling AA calls. You can't get much more Indian sounding than Rajeshree Sisodia.

The One.Tel trainees are learning the correct way to pronounce Welsh, Irish and Scottish surnames.

"Llewellyn ... oh my god, how do you say that?" asks Ajay Lamba, a 25-year-old graduate. "Hugh, Pugh, O'Hare, O'Hara, what's the difference? What kind of language is this?"

Do call centre workers in India really need to know that much about British culture to provide an effective service? If so, is it realistic to expect them to learn so much in little more than a month?

It is surprisingly difficult to condense all things British into a month-long synopsis for people who are, not unsurprisingly, struggling to come to terms with a culture to which they have had little exposure.

Ajay, who previously worked in a call centre with a US client, says: "It's difficult switching over to the British accent from the American.

"I had never heard of the word 'skip' before," he adds after I probe the group about what they would do if a customer called them for the number of a skip hiring company in a particular street, in a specific area. "We thought skip was like skipping."

Dealing with misconceptions and prejudices about people from other countries is a two-way process. Some of my group have already told me they think Brits are overly polite, very punctual, have high moral standards (higher than the Americans, at any rate) and that Amsterdam is in Britain.

An uncomfortable reality of life in an India call centre, as my experience has taught me, is that agents occasionally stumble across a minority of UK customers who do not want to speak to an Indian.

One of the trainers tells me: "One guy thought the agent had hung up but he had not and [the UK customer] was saying to his wife, 'It was this young Paki boy'.

"Some people, when you phone them, ask, 'Where are you calling from? India?' and then they say, 'What's the weather like there?' and they talk for ages. Others, ask you the same thing and then when they find out you are calling from India, they hang up, though these are less."

The agents are pragmatic about the anti-Indian sentiment they encounter when calling Britain, realising that some of it stems from the fact that outsourcing will inevitably be seen as leading to job losses in the UK.

"It's economics," says Shoaib Aslam, 22. "The most important factor is cost-effectiveness. If you can get the same job done for 10 per cent of the cost, what would you do?"

Before me and the five other trainers lies an uphill struggle, not least because - despite assurances from BPO firms in India that they do not "poach" staff from one another - Indian call centres, like their British counterparts, appear to have high staff turnover rates. Agents, who are all graduates and are understandably looking for better wages and job prospects, often move to other BPO companies offering higher salaries.

According to the UK-based Communication Workers Union, annual staff turnover at call centres in Bangalore is 60 per cent, compared with between 30 and 35 per cent in Britain.

The figures are reflected on my training course. Five of my original One.Tel batch left before the end of the first week of training, and a new group has been picked to help plug the shortfall.

"Most of the guys who come here [to become agents] have at least one other [job] appointment letter," another of the trainers says.

Indeed, a young woman tells me on her first day of training that she has yet to have her resignation from another call centre accepted.

The call centre industry pays what the agents call "big bucks". At Infovision, an average monthly wage is around 12,000 rupees (£145), more if the agent has experience. Comparing this with the average wage of £13,000 a year for a standard-grade customer service representative in the UK, it is not difficult to see why firms including Norwich Union, Barclays, Abbey National, HSBC and Lloyds TSB have moved thousands of jobs to India.

With the Indian call centre agents' lucrative salaries come free meals and transport to and from work, as well as the public perception that being a call centre worker is good work. The occupation carries kudos - a far cry from its image in the UK.

Back in the training session, my batch of new recruits are more than a little restless. This is partly because the learning curve is proving to be steeper than they imagined but also because some of the training material - compiled by Indian-born trainers using the internet - needs to be corrected.

It takes most of my flagging will-power not to laugh when I spot a powerpoint presentation on present-day British counties that includes "Huntingdonshire" and "Cumberland and Westmorland". Whoever put it together has apparently never heard of Cumbria.

While mistakes may muster a smile, they also raise important questions as to whether the agents and the trainers, who have never been to Britain, can handle the hundreds of queries they are expected to face daily.

It's almost midnight, we still have half an hour left, and the air conditioning has stopped working. The twin Indian and Union flags in the centre of the training room are sagging in the heat. I consider testing the agents to see how much they have absorbed but decide against it as I watch them fidget. I smile to myself as I prepare for the hour-and-a-half-long journey home - and the powerpoint presentation on kissograms that awaits my new recruits in their next shift.

The names of the call centre agents have been changed

'We can't argue liberalisation abroad and protectionism at home'

By Tim Webb and Joseph Watts

Once, bosses lightheartedly threatened their slacking minions that unless they bucked up their ideas, their jobs would be outsourced to India. But it's no longer a joke.

Offshoring - the subcontracting of services and production to the developing world - is on the rise. The technology research company Gartner recently predicted that up to 25 per cent of traditional IT jobs in the West today will be outsourced to emerging markets such as India by 2010.

The phenomenon is usually associated with IT services and call centres. But the potential for it to be extended to other sectors is huge.

A report on the Indian economy from investment bank Goldman Sachs, published last week, estimates that about 7 per cent of India's population speak English, making the sub-continent the second largest pool of English speakers in the world.

The number of workers suitable for outsourcing in the service and IT industries has grown to 650,000 from 6,800 in 1986, the report says. HSBC pays Indian call centre workers around £2,500 a year, compared with £18,750 in the UK. The average salary for highly qualified Indian business graduates is just £7,000, a fraction of the cost of MBA graduates in the West.

Accounting, financial services and the health and pharmaceutical sectors are increasingly using outsourcing. Goldman Sachs estimates that the pharmaceutical sector alone could double the value of goods and services provided in this way to $50bn (£28bn) by 2007. India, in particular, is well suited to carrying out research and development and to the manufacturing of drugs because of its highly trained workforce and good infrastructure.

The financial information and news group Reuters has already outsourced some of its IT operations to India and is also planning to recruit Indian journalists to report company results and other announcements.

Unions in Britain have lobbied against offshoring, and politicians have not been slow to address the issue. In December, the Department of Trade and Industry commissioned an independent study looking at call centres, which has yet to be published. But the Secretary of State for Trade, Patricia Hewitt, has highlighted the dilemma presented by outsourcing in a free market economy: "We challenge the myth that protectionism offers any sort of solution. We can't argue liberalisation abroad and practice protectionism at home."

In the US, the issue is far more sensitive, as American companies are the largest users of offshore services in the world. In response to mounting criticism - and mindful of looming presidential elections in November - the government has recently imposed restrictions on the outsourcing of US federal contracts.

But the practice isn't just a way of cutting costs. Because of the shortage of skilled labour in the UK, subcontracting to overseas workers is helping UK companies to expand.

The insurance company Esure, a subsidiary of HBOS, is considering opening up operations in India. Its head of communications, Adrian Webb, explains: "We cannot expand as quickly as we want to simply because there is not the workforce here. The worst business folly is to create business you cannot answer. So we are looking at taking on the extra resources for peak periods and times when we can't get enough staff on board."

Comments