With English now the contemporary international language for much of the world’s population, English training has become a necessity in both the educational and the business world, particularly for nearshore BPO operations, contact centers, and their agents.
The challenge for companies in this industry is to use an effective English training system that doesn’t cost the earth, but increases the value of their staff in the eyes of their clients. Is that happening, and is it sustainable for a bright future? These are the key questions.
CEFR: The International Standard
Most contact center providers and their clients are familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). This system provides students with grades based on the level of their abilities. The CEFR was put together by the Council of Europe as a way of standardizing the levels of language exams in different regions. It is very widely used internationally, with all important exams being mapped to the CEFR. The grades are broken down below:
Versant: The Nearshore Standard
One of the standards for English language examinations in the nearshore industry is called Versant, an online testing system devised by Pearson Business English Solutions. The company oversees such qualifications as Pearson’s Global Scale of English (GSE), One English Training Level (One Level), Standardized Test of English for Professionals Plus (STEP+), Versant Speaking Test of English (Versant Speaking Test), and Versant Writing Test of English (Versant Writing Test).
The following chart explains how Pearson’s grading system aligns with the international standard of CEFR:
Matching English Grades to Specific Roles
One company that uses Versant is Ibex Global, a contact center provider operating out of Nicaragua, among other locations. Ibex matches specific job roles with the grades achieved in the above chart.
For entry-level positions in what they call “Spanglish Programs”, trainees need to be able to understand the training material, manage the client tools, leave notes and steer basic business conversations and discussions in English, even though they take calls in Spanish. This first stage is matched to B1, or a Versant score of 47-54.
For customer service, agents must prove their English aptitude at a B1 level (Versant 55 – 57). They must be able to communicate a variety of nuances in conversations and discussions, expressing concerns, or sympathy, and their telephone skills are relatively sophisticated.
Finally, moving up to sales and tech support requires a B2 standard (Versant 58-68). Their listening, reading and speaking skills must allow them to participate actively in a wide variety of business interactions and long conversations. They are able to explain processes, overcome objections, and to give positive or negative feedback.
“To help our agents to close their communication gaps, we train them for 40 to 80 hours on our Culture and Communication curriculum,” said Mirna Bravo, Senior Training Director at Ibex Global in Nicaragua. This training is a blended approach, integrating the agent Versant scores into a learning platform that compliments the learner experience with instructor lead lessons.
The Location Factor
Particular countries are certainly a determining factor in finding the right English skills. In a recent interactive study, we used data from Education First’s English Proficiency Index, Global English’s Business English Index, The British Council and IELTS, and TOEFL, to determine that Argentina tops the list of Latin American countries for English language skills, while Ecuador consistently rates at the lowest levels across all data sets.
Not every country or company requires such stringent grading systems to match English skills to jobs. In Honduras, for example, Knoah Solutions has found that the level of English is so high-quality that in-depth assessments through Versant or CEFR are not really necessary.
“One of the reasons we decided to expand our first nearshore operation into Honduras was because the English skills here are so good,” said Ralph Barletta, Executive Vice President of Knoah Solutions. “During the interview process, applicants have a standard spoken and written English proficiency test, which was derived from other standardized tests and evolved from the tests we used in India. We then tend to focus on cultural training as employees develop, building upon the solid English skills that Honduras is producing.”
Other places such as Chile, Panama, and Barranquilla in Colombia also boast more advanced levels of English skill due to a number of private-public initiatives with local universities. As this continues to develop across the region, the industry’s approach toward English language assessments must start to undergo a paradigm shift.
Alternative, Progressive Future
In future, the act of assessing and testing for English proficiency is likely to be different, as work cultures shift toward accommodating a more millennial-centric need. The millennial work culture demands that schedules are more flexible, so ongoing English training processes have to accommodate that.
“Assuming that everyone learns at the same pace isn’t realistic, so letting people learn at their own pace and not letting people lag behind is a better approach,” said Rudy Sanchez, Managing Partner of Mexico-based outsourcing firm Beliveo.
Beliveo uses a more progressive theoretical and practical approach to its English training. The company has weekly theoretical evaluations for its new staff within the first week, then performs a practical exam based on quality of calls after four or five weeks. But the exams aren’t completely focused on knowledge or dogmatic question answering, they are more focused on observing behavior. This approach, Rodolfo says, helps to develop the agents’ overall skills, more so than just core English skills. In the end, it’s the customer’s satisfaction with the service that matters.
And, if you’re at all skeptical about outsourcing to the nearshore based on how English skills are developed, just remember that one in 10 Americans lacks proficiency in the English language.
How does your company approach ongoing English training? Are tried-and-tested methods slowing becoming obsolete? Let us know in the comments below.