Headed To India: Looking for Leads

(Oct 03, 2008) I'm going to India for three weeks. I'll be back the day before the Silicon Valey Recruiting Roadshow. My goal is to immerse myself in Indian culture. I want to understand the foundations of the people who are becoming my partners with increasing frequency.

While we are busy putting tons of business in Indian outsourcing shops, we are doing relatively little to manage it effectively. Even here, on RecruitingBlogs.com, there is little in the way of dialog about cultural difference and what it takes to be productive. We tiptoe around questions of language, culture and business practice.

When I say "we", I mean it in the most collective way possible. Western firms spend little real time in the culture of our Asian business partners. For the relationships to work over the long haul, there has to be much more than a labor arbitrage.

This morning, I was making the account changes needed to have phone and data access while I visit India. Ironically, the customer service call was redirected to a call center in India. The transaction was virtually impossible. It was dotted with tiny increments of unmanaged cultural variation coupled with really crummy data and policies.

If I hadn't been thinking so hard about the Indian culture, I would have written the whole deal off to sheer incompetence at the call center. The woman who was helping me spoke unintelligible English. When asked to slow down and clarify, she got insulted.

It took a great deal of patience and deep breathing to see that the problem was probably caused by the cell company and not the Indian call center. Not getting the language right is a big sin and the reason that outsourcing firms are blamed for more of the problem that they actually cause.

But, we're somehow not allowed to talk about that. A simple "could you please speak English" might solve the problem. But, we sit in the audience, acting like nervous Nellies, afraid that a little conflict will sully the long term.

Here are a couple of examples:

In order to verify my identity, I was asked to identify a place that I had lived from one of three choices:
a. Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa, California
b. Linthicum Heights, Maryland
c. Westminster, California

The data was bad. There's no such place as a. I had an office in b. and c. is a combination of places from my history. The data was bad. If she had been fluent in my language, we could have bantered about the silliness. Instead, she got frustrated when I said "none of the above although each is partly right."

As my frustration grew (it was a 90 minute phone call that results in ridiculously expensive charges for primitive levels of service), I said, "Maybe I should just cancel my account." She said, "Well, that's certainly your choice, sir." A more fluent speaker would have tried to ease the tone of the conversation.

The problem is that the system was engineered to make the call a failure. Actually, the problem was more like the system hadn't been designed at all

Generalizing the problem to an entire continent is not particularly useful, though. We need to find a way to communicate about the business issues that are clouded by bad language and inadequate cultural perception. We need to do it on a case by case basis. It's hard work.

Right here on RecruitingBlogs.com, we have similar problems with business etiquette and intercultural language. If we're going to become a strong global culture, we need to figure out how to address it.

While I'm in India, is there anyone I should see?

John Sumser has been chronicling the Recruiting Industry forever. You can catch his work at JohnSumser.com. He's the CEO of the Recruiting Roadshow. Join the fun in Silicon Valley (10/23) or Atlanta in early December.

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John, a super and provocative post - thank you!

Having traveled throughout India I'll offer you only one piece of advice...Watch your blood sugar, Baba!
Hi John

Would love to meet up if you're going to be in Delhi anytime!
G' morning John ~

this is wonderful ~ have heard alot from my sister Jenna who visited India for missionary efforts. I think Gautam Ghosh will be a great meet...as I look forward to meeting him near future and learning more about him. Best wishes ~ and safe travels as well! Best! Susan
John, I am really sorry for the bad experience that you had before the start of the journey itself. Customer satisfaction is entirely different ball game in India., but the companies(some) should have given proper training to the people. Even if the companies(some) give proper training to the people, their inner instinct some time, I am sorry, most of the time act in a way how they experienced in their real life. They dont' think of repeat business from their customer's, it's like either you take it or leave it.
I think now it's slowly changing., but it's a long way to go.
My lovely husband was born and raised in Turkey and came to the States by way of Denmark, so I understand very well the nuances of culture in communication. When you layer culture with gender, generation, and personality, communication has tremendous potential to explode, or at least get very funny very fast. It really helps to have a sense of humor, and we've found that once we agree on the vocabulary the rest is a lot easier.

Fair winds and far sailing, John. Come back to us safely!
Dialects, inflections, poor choices of words, bad grammar, seeing/not seeing body language, etc. all contribute to poor communication. Even the best systems can't make up for aforewritten list. Cost containment is necessary today but how recruiting partners to recruit the right people for the culture served is the uber-challenge. Frankly, most companies don't consider the list when recruiting or do so in such a cursory way to be able to say, "See, we did consider dialect, inflections, etc. in our hiring decision."

Thankfully it's NOT an India problem but a global problem associated with declining education (an entirely different discussion). Here in the States many will say hire more teachers or raise taxes to enrich the educational experience but this has never improved results.

As far as RBC, perhaps more can use emoticons when posting (happy, angry, sarcastic, cynical, humorous, etc.) except on the other side there will always be people who will, despite ample "warnings" and explanations, take things the wrong way. It's the curse of the Bell Curve again...

Oh and have a great trip John. Long time no see...
Hi John - Your recent call experience may likely color your observations in the India trip even though you are taking it in good faith.
There are alot of things that are fundamentally different in the Indian professional's psyche. We are not developed to be proactive, and establish ground rules wherein the misunderstood and misspoken words are righted from the wrong.
In Indian culture, the ability to asborb a recent mistake and then go on to address it is nearly asbent. Also, in a conversation, generally being an avid and insterested listener who then solves a problem is inherently absent especially in the new India where TV radio and media hype the aggressive and inveterate as more dynamic rather than the attentive and the assertive type. Taking the heat and then getting back is not especially well trained in a culture that is opaque on listening..
The mindset is largely fixed and stereotypes rapidly form which don't dissolve as quickly even when things get better. This is again a byproduct of a largely fatalistic outlook, though there has been more helpful changes recently

So, if a call, for example veers of course as in John's case it is likely that there is a endemic effect on that person atleast for some time . I only hope that this call center rep. did not carry on the negative mental filter to the later calls.
As in China so in India: When foreign clients squeeze every penny out from their vendor, there is a direct quality reduction in goods and services. Though I have had many experiences with Indian call centers, I have also noticed that spotty customer service is sporadic and in recent times there has been too many providers trying to outbeat competition soley on costs and then think they can ramp the service. It doesn't work like that in this thankless industry as employee turnover is ridiculously high even in established firms and the good ones move on quickly. So what we get is what is there ( a minor play on on Rumsfeld's advice with his cold tongue to our troops in Iraq)

Also, the Indian professional class is highly stratified with an overeager tendency to put down lower rung people on the corporate ladder. This in many ways accentuates the problem for the folks who are handling the calls.
In India, there is a constant need to prove ourselves especially in the eyes of our supervisor and among peers for who and what we are and where we are going upwardly mobile, to.

Though many a call center person really are the first time earners of decent salary in their family tree and are helping their respective families to climbup economically, they are also constantly shortchanging themselves trying to prove their social worth by frittering in wantonly avoidable ways. Sometimes 20-30 % of their salaries go on parties and expenses that they know they don't like but end up doing because of peer social pressures.

So, John, in your India trip if it is possible try to connect and spent time over coffeee with a real customer service guy that you can pick to choose and try to understand his or her family background and his or her aspirations directly as there is a helluva lot management prescreening and preselection that is largely unhelpful for the curious and real observer. if you get successful to engage one on one with your pick, then you can in your own ways unravel the cultural and social changes that are useful pointers

All the best


Should you be visiting Hyderabad-I would love to spend some time with you!

Achyut Menon
Most of the larger companies who have call centers off shore in Phillipines or India also offer the option of a caller requesting a transfer to an American speaking person. Ask for the individual's manager and make the request. I found this out when, after a particularly frustrating experience, I called the US corporate office and asked for the Customer Service Manager on site. Since then, it's worked for me a number of times. Good Luck!
Siva, what a fantastic reply. Thanks for the illumination.

Siva Subramaniam said:
Hi John - Your recent call experience may likely color your observations in the India trip even though you are taking it in good faith.
There are alot of things that are fundamentally different in the Indian professional's psyche. We are not developed to be proactive, and establish ground rules wherein the misunderstood and misspoken words are righted from the wrong.

Thank you all for the good wishes and insight. I won't make Hyperabad but will be in Delhi.

Watch for the trip report6s at www.johnsumser.com.

Silva, I think your note is one of the best things ever contributed to RecruitingBlogs.com I hope it will strat a larger conversation about cultural expectations. If any group could be able to walk through the landmines of stereotyping and bias, it should be us. Thanks for a great start.

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