Sunday, July 10, 2005

They teach more than English in call centers

By Erwin Lemuel Oliva

AMERICANS in general love small talk. Asians do not, but when they do engage in conversation, they "go deep." Filipinos are generally not upfront (They say “yes” when they mean “no”), and often are pushovers or not too assertive.

The scenarios mentioned above are not exactly lessons in Asian culture but observations made by Maria Louisa Ros, Convergys director for global communication and culture training. Convergys is one of the biggest call center operations in the Philippines, employing 5,600 Filipinos.

A former English teacher in Ateneo High School, Ros was quick to debunk misconceptions about the industry, revealing that call center agents are not just taught English as part of its intensive training but also the nuances of the culture of customers they deal with.

“Turnovers are a general problem in any industry. But I think the reason why people quit is that they cannot handle the job. They usually get culture-shocked. This is why we train them to handle situations. They’re not merely telephone operators. It’s a stressful job and only the best may be able to handle it,” Ros said, adding that the main job of a call center agent is to actually respond to a customer problem in a short period of time.

Filipino agents at Convergys deal with customers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and recently Australia. They have to understand the “context of their customers,” which includes the cultural nuances, idiom and pronunciation, among others. They are also taught how to deal with irate customers, she said.

“It is not really a no-brainer job,” Ros added, reacting to perceptions that call centers offer dead-end jobs.

Having taught English and eventually worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization, Ros said that Convergys teaches call center agents different ways to control conversations, how to listen actively, and even spot a customer’s feelings by merely listening to the tone of their voice.

Unlike regular conversations where non-verbal cues aid in the understanding of what a person is really trying to convey, call center agents are trained to detect customer’s feelings from the tone of their voices alone.

“We teach them to detect sarcasm. But this takes experience. Filipinos usually speak in singsong. Americans talk in a rising-falling tone. Indians usually talk in rising tone. All these you have to understand, while you think of a solution to a problem, making small talk, and typing. So we’re really developing out-doers and out-thinkers,” Ros said.

Convergys call center agents undergo three-week basic training involving language accuracy (grammar, neutralization of accent), comprehension, reasoning, and customer support. Technical training follows for two to ten weeks.

Ros trained in Convergys India after she was hired as senior manager of the communications and culture training of Convergys Philippines. After refining the communications and culture training of the local subsidiary, she was promoted to director for global communication and culture training.

She now leads a 200-strong team of trainers, communication coaches, and managers across 14 sites in India and the Philippines after less than a year in the job. She was also put in charge of the implementation of the refined training program she developed in all call center operations of Convergys.

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