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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 they 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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