In a recent conversation with a Central America-based contact center manager, it was insightful to learn just how much is involved with ramping up agents to meet real-life language expectations.
“The real cost of hiring a new employee is not just the cost of a faltering English fluency or having a strong accent, but rather the time it actually takes to get up and running on the telephones,” the manager said.
When one adds up the cost of soft skill and induction training to first month’s salary expense, the “hidden” cost of a new agent hire can be upwards of $1000 or more. And early turnover of that same employee can further increase that number.
Pursuit of Quality
According to Dr. Jane Lockwood of the Hong Kong Institute of Education: “The consequences of employing non-native speaker (NNS) staff as customer service representatives (CSRs) are significant in terms of language and acculturalisation. There is currently great concern regarding the quality of the communication with the customers.”
This all puts pressure on the HR development, training and quality assurance (QA) processes in the local call centres to improve services.
While these QA problems may be attributed to weak English language communication skills of the CSRs on the telephones, I argue that the low language proficiency abilities and the lack of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) assessment skills of the HR department, the training department and QA personnel themselves exacerbate the problem when recruiting, diagnosing, training and coaching for language.
In some Latin American countries, recent high school graduates with strong English skills can earn two to three times more than experienced university graduates lacking such ability.
Language Skills Pay
In some Latin American countries, recent high school graduates with strong English skills can earn two to three times more than experienced university graduates lacking such ability. The differentiator is clearly English proficiency.
And yet, of the few specialized university degree programs in HR that do exist, currently none offers training in administering English assessments or provides information on how to screen candidates according to this important skill. This area of foreign language recruitment (French and Portuguese, too), a specialty in and of itself, is simply not part of any university curricula.
In fact, many employees who are put in charge of this important function came into their position because they, themselves, spoke English. But what happens when current growth or other problems surface as a result of inadequate recruitment practices? Outsourcing English can be a costly process.
A recent case of two management applicants in El Salvador vying for the same position at a large telecom firm came down to functional English skill. Both candidate were fluent English speakers but the client wanted to rate each person’s ability to carry out business functions, such as negotiating new contracts, in English. The initial HR interviews were all carried out in Spanish; and yet the deciding factor for hire was English ability.
The same is true for supervisory functions. Often successful contact center agents are quickly promoted to management without any formal training. In the case of QA personnel, supervisors are required to evaluate other agents’ performances. Even with scorecard checklists, it may not be clear what skills to screen for if they are language-related only; and therefore, nearly impossible to remediate language-based problems. The decision on whether or not to retain a struggling employee may ultimately hinge on English ability and the ability to make prescriptions to improve it.
There are many business stakeholders in language assessment: recruiters, trainers, account managers, QA monitors and even CSAT survey providers.
In a study of Hong Kong workplace language training design and evaluation processes, Dr. Jane Lockwood noted that “few workplaces were aware of the language requirements of their organisations. The idea of a language audit and the value it could bring to streamlining an integrated approach to communications training, recruitment and QA was unknown.
Carrying out a language audit requires language assessment experts to understand the company organisation and processes and to assess accounts and post-holders for language levels commensurate with the language complexity required to do the job.”
Failing to do this can ultimately lead to additional “hidden” costs.
Jon Felperin, MA TEFL (firstname.lastname@example.org) has over 26 years experience as an educator, teacher trainer and educational consultant. Based in El Salvador, he divides his time equally between Central and South America. His main business focus is the BPO/contact center industry and he promotes e-learning language solutions for GlobalEnglish.com and Saywire.com.