Is the Indian accent bad or weird

Babel in the call center: When Indians advise, we only understand train station


India was the number 1 call center nation for a long time. But because only a few understand the chanting English of customer advisors, these are being replaced. Now people are increasingly relying on web chats.

There is probably more truth in the English jokes about Indians than the former British colony admits: For example, when the customs officer asks about age, the Indian who is entering the country replies: "I am dirty" (should mean thirty = 30). And the answer to the question about the age of his wife: "She's dirty, too" (meaning thirtytwo = 32).

Such misunderstandings are typical - also in business. India is an IT outsourcing destination for the whole world and was also the number 1 call center nation in the world until last year. The subcontinent would probably continue to be the undisputed leader if it weren't for the language problem.

Even Americans have trouble

"It really is like this: In the beginning I had major communication problems during telephone conferences," admits Hellmuth Broda from the IT company Infosys Ltd. in Zurich. The singsong, the pronunciation that takes getting used to and the excessive use of British idioms make it difficult not only for Swiss business customers (who often end up in India when it comes to IT issues) and other foreigners to understand Indian English. Even Americans and others who speak English as their mother tongue have difficulties.

Globally active companies react accordingly to customer feedback: More and more companies are relocating their helpdesks from India to the Far East and especially to the Philippines. According to the New York Times, there are now more call center agents on the archipelago than in India; namely more than 400,000 compared to 350,000 in India. The annual growth rate is 20 percent.

It is remarkable. Because the Filipino population is only a tenth the size of India. In addition, the Filipino call center employees earn significantly more than their Indian competitors. The reason: The Filipinos speak English with an American accent and are familiar with the culture in the land of opportunity.

But the East Asians are not a panacea. Broda's company Infosys also has a call center in the Philippine capital Manila. But there are still six centers in India. Because wherever specific specialist knowledge is required, the Indians are more competent. This is also confirmed by Beat Welte, spokesman for HP Switzerland. Of course, HP has local help desks for private customers in the respective national language. But the computer company has found a solution for its corporate customers, as well as Infosys and many others, to deal effectively with the communication problem in the subcontinent: People are chatting instead of talking from India. "Since we have been communicating in writing, there have been no more complaints about communication difficulties," says Welte.

Already today, 10 percent of inquiries come in writing. The phone cannot be replaced if the computer is not running. "The trend is clearly towards more chat," observes Broda. That is because, on the one hand, chatting is widespread among computer users today. On the other hand, text messages would also be easier to log. Customers could, for example, save and read the advice of the agents. Misunderstandings quickly become obvious.

The growing importance of text messaging, the so-called non-voice business, is reflected in numbers. Some help desk providers already make more than half of their sales in this area.