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India’s information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) sector is booming, continuing to reap the benefits of the need to cut costs in anemic economies in the West. (Zackary Canepari/The New York Times/Zackary Canepari/The New York Times)
India’s information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) sector is booming, continuing to reap the benefits of the need to cut costs in anemic economies in the West. (Zackary Canepari/The New York Times/Zackary Canepari/The New York Times)

Stephanie Nolen

India's whole new class of call centre professionals Add to ...

Suhil’s forehead is creased, his brows pulled tight with anxiety. He straightens his shoulders, inhales deeply.

“Fee vaiwer,” he says.

Watching his mouth closely, Bikram Singh gently shakes his head. “Again.”

“Fee vaiwer,” Suhil repeats. “Fee vaiwer.”

Mr. Singh gives a tiny sigh at Suhil’s pronunciation of “fee waiver.”

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“We’ll come back to this,” he says. The vee-double-you mash-up is one of the hardest English sounds for north Indians to get right, since there is no W in their native Hindi.

It’s consonant class at a large outsource operation in the new business city on the edge of the Indian capital. Mr. Singh faces a room full of clever young lawyers, who have landed well-paid (for here) and comfortable jobs providing legal services for a major U.S. financial services firm, with a head office in the Midwest. But if they are to advance in this industry, they must be able to make themselves understood: conquer the consonants, master the idioms and much more besides.

Mr. Singh, who heads a firm of 4,000 trainers, is part of a rapidly growing industry turning out workers who have been “neutralized” – or, in the softer language some trainers prefer, “globalized.” They know their petrol pumps from their gas stations; they understand the concept of small talk; they have had drummed out of them the idea that an evasive “yes” is preferable to a frank “no” when you can’t do something.

“At first it seemed really impossible that I was going to be able to do this and it made me really nervous,” said Rachna, one of Mr. Singh’s students, whom The Globe and Mail agreed to identify only by their first names. “But now speaking like this, talking to Americans, it just feels normal to me and I feel professional.”

India’s information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) sector is booming, continuing to reap the benefits of the need to cut costs in anemic economies in the West. The category includes everything from the traditional IT call centre that helps fix your printer to “knowledge process outsourcing” (KPO) for engineering services, to financial analysts; new sectors such as media, insurance and health management have shifted business processes to India in the past few years, lured by the vast, relatively low-waged, English-speaking talent pool.

Taken together, BPO and IT operations now account for 7.5 per cent of the country’s GDP and employ 2.8 million people, according to a survey by the National Association of Software and Services Providers.

The shiny new office towers of Gurgaon are filled with young people. These jobs appeal because they are comparatively well-paid – at $500 a month for an entry-level KPO job – and have the status of modern workplaces with ties to multinationals. The outsource world has cachet – it’s a fixture in Bollywood movies and the subject of a multimillion-copy selling novel. There is no hardened hierarchy; merit is rewarded; there is an unusually high presence of women. But the newness means employees have no one in their family or immediate community with experience in this world to guide them, and it’s up to trainers to fill those gaps.

The vast majority of these employees do their job on the phone; 70 per cent of the IT/BPO business is with North America.

Muskan Chawla, who trains corporate lawyers for the legal outsourcing firm Pangea3, says work with a firm like hers produces a whole new class of professionals. “This is where the whole business world in India is heading,” she said. “If you are well-groomed, have a decent personality – you can go from here anywhere.”

Ms. Chawla herself got her start nearly a decade ago at a call centre collecting debts from bitter Americans. They seized on her accent as a reason to evade, asking why an Indian cared if they paid off the new fridge. In her current job, she aims to help her students develop a “global” accent, while other training companies try to teach a more specifically American sound. Mr. Singh teaches his students how to pronounce American-style using PowerPoints of tongues hitting palates; low-end training centres make their students watch hours and hours of episodes of Friends.

But the KPO operations, such as financial firms and legal operations, require employees schooled in more than accent and idiom. As they move up the ladder to positions where they spend hours on the phone – or even in person, on coveted trips to head office – with their American colleagues, they are trained in etiquette, culture and business behaviours.

Mr. Singh speaks to his students in a blunt but peppy style about the way that people in the West openly discuss problems, and address conflict – the Indian style of avoidance will only be taken as shifty, he says. “Americans say ‘no’, when they can’t do something. We never say ‘no’.” It causes frustration; he’s seen it many times. “In India we use lots of vocabulary, we think it’s a good thing and makes us sound intelligent.” Instead, he says, be concise.

He warms to his topic, and the instructions come firing out. “Don’t call African Americans ‘Negroes’, do not call a Red Indian as a Red Indian – call them Native American! Out of innocence you can say something that offends. Don’t talk about the Civil War, or Vietnam War, don’t touch politics. Never ask people how much money they make!”

His students often find this dictum puzzling. He sighs. “The people who haven’t been through this training are the ones who mess things up. They give Indians a bad name.”

Ms. Chawla, who trains dozens of newly recruited lawyers each month, has a keen focus on etiquette. Her trainees must answer the phone by the second ring – 10th is not unusual in the typical Indian office – and be able to engage in small talk. “When they begin, that American chit chat makes them freeze – ‘I don’t know this person, why are they asking me how I’m doing?’ I tell them, relax! He’s just a person!”

An earlier online version of this article erroneously stated there is no V in Hindi. This has been corrected.

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