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Indian contact center management practices detailed in report

Best practices for India-based contact centers include creating a clear career path, treating managers as coaches, and keeping agents connected to the corporate office.

Organizations running contact centers in India need to be aware of some key differences from their U.S.-based operations, a recent report suggests.

Companies are looking beyond outsourcers and increasingly setting up their own operations in India, according to the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA) -- and it's not just about saving money.

"Originally, it was all about the savings," said John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research for the SSPA. "Just competing for technical folks in America is almost impossible. The number of technology graduates is declining, and those that do come out are finding higher-level or higher-paying jobs than entry-level support. In India, the talent pool is much bigger."

With an estimated 1.2 million graduates with technical degrees coming out of Indian universities, the technical support industry needs to better prepare itself to attract and retain these professionals. That requires a few key steps in differentiating overseas operations, according to Talent Management in Emerging Markets, a report the SSPA issued last month.

The first and most obvious difference is culture, and it's an area where currently there is not enough training, the report suggests. Customers typically rank accents and language barriers as their No. 1 issue with offshore agents, yet 43% of Indian hiring managers surveyed by the SSPA say their companies have only one language class a week.

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"The big universities understand this and already are partnering with companies," said Ragsdale, who authored the report. "At the second-tier engineering schools, where you see a lot of the support folks coming from, it's not as big an emphasis."

In fact, although most of the companies and agents surveyed for the report indicated they were satisfied with language and "soft skills" training, that generally isn't the case with end customers calling for support, Ragsdale said, suggesting that overseas contact centers are still focused more on the technical training.

Greater attrition

Agent attrition, something North America-based contact centers grapple with themselves, takes on another dimension in India. There is a greater pool of talent, but agents move between positions much more rapidly. Attrition rates that top out at 13% in the U.S. reach 23% in India. Support organizations there have an interview-to-hire rate of 10% or less.

"If only 1 in 10 applicants takes an offer, then 90% of the time you're wasting your time in the interview," Ragsdale said.

Agent retention

The average tenure of a support agent in India is 12 to 24 months -- the same average time period before an agent is promoted to management. This indicates that if agents aren't promoted within two years, they leave, Ragsdale said. That makes retaining agents even more important in India. Those contact centers need to keep their veteran agents' knowledge and experience within the organization.

One place to start is with the contact center manager. The role of the manager is slightly different in India, acting as more of a big brother or coach. Agents in India typically work odd shifts to accommodate U.S. hours.

"There's some camaraderie by bonding over weird hours or commutes," Ragsdale said. "With a new group, they really create a family and they look to the supervisor as a coach. There is a lot more focus on fun events, group events. It puts a lot more pressure on hiring and promoting the right supervisors."

North America-based firms with Indian operations also need to make an effort to keep the overseas contact center "in the loop," according to the report. Indian workers often feel isolated and separated from corporate headquarters -- though it doesn't have to be that way, Ragsdale said.

"Those that have the lowest attrition spend a lot of time and money sending U.S. people over to the Indian operation and giving them face time," he said. "They're hearing the issues and understanding the environment firsthand."

Other best practices include efforts that allow employees to share ideas enterprise-wide because, as the report notes, these customer-facing employees have valuable insight into the customer experience and products.

Creating a career path

Another significant factor in agent retention is creating a career path and making that path clear to new agents immediately. In India, tech support is more widely recognized as a career than in North America, where those jobs are typically seen as training grounds for development, quality assurance, sales engineering and professional services, Ragsdale said. So North American companies with Indian contact centers need to emphasize career planning for agents on their first day on the job.

In addition, Ragsdale said, there is a preference in India for working with well-known companies and market leaders.

"There's definitely a pecking order to the positions," he said. "People definitely want to work for a big-name company, then the smaller name and then the outsourcers. And if they can't get tech support, they turn to contact center outsourcers. I suspect the salaries line up with that pecking order as well."

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