New Delhi: When employees at a chemical manufacturing company in Japan call up their help desk with a software problem, the conversation usually veers off on a tangent that sounds something like this: “Your name is strange,” they ask the Japanese speaker on the other end of the line. “What is the kanji for it?” (How do you write that in Japanese script?)
Nitu Singh, the help desk staffer on the other end, usually answers them with a soft grin on her face. “I don’t have a kanji,” she says from her desk at a call centre in Noida run by Patni Computer Systems Ltd. “I am from India.”
In order to keep up with the growing demand from multinational companies for multilingual outsourcing services, business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in India have started scouting out speakers in languages like Spanish, French, Japanese, and German to man their phone lines.
Patni, which creates software for clients and relies on its BPO arm to run a corresponding help desk for each product, now employs around 50 foreign language speakers at its centres in Noida and Mumbai.
A client started asking Patni a few years ago for centralized help desk support that could cover every region it operated in and replace the half dozen centres it was then using. Patni started looking for what kind of talent it could even find in India. Singh, who spent almost a decade in Tokyo with her family’s chain of Indian restaurants in Japan, was one of Patni’s earliest recruits.
“For a language profile, the basic idea is translation,” Singh says, explaining what attracted her to this new line of work. “Here, it’s technical support in Japanese. There is more career growth.”
Her French-speaking colleague Anshu Bhagat decided to move to a BPO with a similar idea in mind. After teaching English in France and French in Delhi, the 25-year-old Bhagat was ready to try something else, and found Patni’s listing on the job portal Naukri.com. “I see growth in working with Patni,” she says, “with (both the) language and technical (parts), I learn new things every day.”
Foreign-language call centre staffers also command a salary premium of anywhere between 25% and 50% over their English counterparts. In addition to Japanese and French, Patni currently employs teams speaking Italian, Spanish and German. Because the job at Patni is a client-specific technical help desk, the numbers they need are relatively small, says Sanjiv Kapur who heads Patni’s BPO. “You can’t hire 100 German speakers here,” he says, “but this scale works.”
Other companies have tried a larger scale model, but went outside of India to recruit. At the behest of two financial services clients who wanted all of their call centre operations under the same management, 24/7 Customer Inc. got into the multilingual business.
The company first recruited the half dozen German speakers it would need within India, but when it needed more French speakers than it could find, 24/7 went to Mauritius in 2006 and, more recently, to Ivory Coast to recruit them.
For placements, companies approach both cultural centres such as Alliance Française and Max Mueller Bhawan, and universities that offer language courses, such as Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“There has been an increase, even more so since last year,” says Thamanna Kapur, human resources director for Alliance Française, referring to the number of requests the institute gets from private sector organizations for translation, training and employment candidates. JNU offers degrees in languages ranging from French and German to Chinese, Korean, and Russian, and claims close to 100% placement opportunities for its graduates in government, media and call centres run by companies such as IBM Daksh and Hewlett-Packard Co.
No one expects foreign language BPO work to become a huge industry in India. Finding recruits—and their replacements, should they chose to leave—is no easy task. Setting up call centres in other locations is usually easier than staffing them in India. For instance, 24/7 operates a Spanish language centre out of Guatemala, a European language centre out of Belfast and an Asian language operation in Shanghai.
But for Indians who know foreign languages, it’s one lucrative option. “Any company in this business will have to look at language options as key in service capabilities,” says Pradeep Narayanan, head of new services for 24/7. Languages come in handy in other instances, too.
Singh and her father speak in Japanese when dealing with difficult shopkeepers, and when dealing with the notoriously English-resistant French. “I started speaking in Japanese,” says Singh, recounting her travels through Europe. “Then they were very polite to me.”