Nearshore Americas

The ‘Amazon Effect’ is Reaching Language Tests, Upsetting BPOs

Sooner or later, the so-called “Amazon Effect” had to make its way into the BPO industry. 

Amazon has been using its big dog status to strong-arm offshore and nearshore BPO partners into using LanguaTest, an English proficiency testing tool from Florida-based company LanguaMetrics.

Kenneth Spiegel, CEO of LanguaMetrics, told NSAM that Amazon has been pushing its partners to use LanguaTest as a condition to do business. 

“Amazon crafted a situation where they are the big dog; they can set their own rules. They have huge numbers of agents that are from the BPOs, your Concentrix, ibex, Qualfon”, Spiegel explained in an interview. “Amazon tells them: ‘You have to contract with LanguaMetrics and pass their test in order to put an agent on our projects’. So we have contracts with your top-tier BPOs around the world”.

Founded in 2012, LanguaMetrics was launched with the idea of using AI-powered speech analytics to quantify and measure the phonetic accuracy and understandability of speech. The company worked mostly with Chinese organizations for several years, providing products for the teaching of English.

“Amazon crafted a situation where they are the big dog; they can set their own rules”—Kenneth Spiegel, CEO at LanguaMetrics.

In 2018, it was contacted by Amazon to build a language proficiency test that could be applied to the retail giant’s offshore CX agents. Both entities have been partnering ever since, with Amazon using LanguaTest as one of its main tools to measure English proficiency. 

Spiegel assures that LanguaTest is tougher than most English understandability tests because it evaluates not only pronunciation, but meaning too. It makes it more difficult for prospects to ace the test by reciting memorized passages, such as a religious prayer or “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. 

“What if they [the agents] are wonderful at pronouncing a string of words that don’t make sense? Soccer mom knows that in a heartbeat”, he commented. “You have to use AI to measure understandability. You can’t take your CEFR score and know whether what’s coming out of their mouth is going to be understood by the listener in the target audience”

According to LanguaMetric’s own site, Amazon partnered with the company “to set their own standard of understandability” with custom tests that are “used all over the world to ensure their standard of understandability”. The site also assures that  “Amazon requires its use by many of the world’s largest call center operations”.

Ibex, Qualfon, Alorica, Sitel, Startek, Teleperformance and iQor are among the firms which LanguaMetrics lists as users or former users of LanguaTest. 

NSAM reached out to several of these firms. Startek confirmed that it used LanguaTest at some point, as well as a “wide variety” of other testing solutions. Today, it sticks mostly with SHL. iQor also confirmed it used LanguaTest at some point, but not anymore. Both companies refused to comment on whether Amazon made the use of LanguaTest a requirement for doing business with them. Neither mentioned why they’re not using the tool anymore. 

We reached out to Amazon’s PR department to ask about LanguaTest. No response has been received as of the time of this publication. Though the company makes no specific mention of the tool in its corporate page, LanguaMetrics is listed as an Alexa Skill.

The Great Disruptor

Most companies would be over the moon to do business with Amazon. The statement applies to BPOs, although, according to Kenneth Spiegel, the feelings turn mixed when LanguaTest is added to the equation. 

“There’s tension in this relationship”, Spiegel said. “Before us, the BPOs were using any tests they wanted and putting people in Amazon and everybody else’s projects and saying ‘Look, they got a 95 in the XYZ test. We did what we needed to. Their English is good’”. 

“For 20 years, Amazon has been fighting this saying ‘Some of them have good English. Many of them do not’”, he added.

In spite of the proliferation of BPOs in offshore and nearshore locations, finding agents with native or even serviceable levels of spoken English remains a major headache for most vendors and their customers. The lack of a standardized measuring stick, paired with effective, nation-wide teaching programs, makes the native English-speaking agent an elusive creature for most recruiters. 

“Once you get to the director and executive level [in BPOs], they’re not giving up. They want Amazon to get a different test”—Kenneth Spiegel, CEO at LanguaMetrics

For Amazon, which purports to have customer care operations in 130 locations and over 150 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the US alone, not having access to top quality English-speaking agents can spell trouble.

“Their [Amazon’s] call centers in the Philippines are receiving a huge amount of complaints: users do not understand what the operators are saying”, commented LanguaMetric’s CTO, Ihor Guryanov, back in 2019, during the company’s early days of its partnership with Amazon.

According to Spiegel, operations folks in BPOs attest to the quality of LanguaTest as a tool for screening agents. Executives are less happy about it, mostly because it makes recruitment processes more difficult than they already are. Nevertheless, they give in. In the end, it all comes down to a “matter of economics”.

“Some of them [BPOs] push harder than others to try to get out of this requirement”, he said. “The friends we’ve made at the BPOs are at the operations levels. They’ve seen what the test does upfront. They basically agree with the test. Once you get to the director and executive level, they’re not giving up. They want Amazon to get a different test”

“Amazon disrupted the industry of English testing. We were the tool, but they had the clout to say ‘No. Unless they pass this test, you can’t put them on our lines’”, Spiegel assured. “This pushback eventually died down. They [BPOs] said ‘Well, if we want this business, we’re going to have to do it this way’. They would find better candidates”.

Whatever Follows

Whether Amazon will truly disrupt testing practices among BPOs remains to be seen. And even if it doesn’t, AI-powered language tools are already making their way into the industry. 

Tech firms such as Emmersion, Piiplet, Berlitz, SHL and Mercer Mettl already offer AI-assisted tools for talent assessment. Everest Group expects ChatGPT and other AI systems to become prominent tools in companies’ recruitment and sourcing processes.

BPOs won’t remain with their arms crossed. As labor costs increase and demand keeps climbing, providers in hotspots such as the Nearshore will bet on the most sophisticated tools. 

“English-speaking standards are continually updated in the Nearshore market”, pointed out Sebastian Menutti, Industry Principal at Frost & Sullivan. “The inclusion of several AI-based modules is producing shorter training times in BPOs, as well as better English proficiency results”.

As for LanguaMetrics, the company is already thinking beyond the BPO industry. Kenneth Spiegel told NSAM that he’s interested in doing business with other sorts of customers.

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On what’s the future of LanguaMetrics with Amazon, Mr. Spiegel isn’t entirely sure. Amazon’s hunger for acquisitions seems insatiable, and the e-commerce giant is known to buy smaller partners. It already has an equity position in LanguaMetrics, Spiegel told NSAM.

Although LanguaMetrics’ CEO refused to speculate too much about the possibility of a buy-out, he didn’t discard it entirely. 

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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