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Progeon Puts Accent on Training

March 1, 2005
Every six months, hundreds of new employees converge on Progeon Ltd., a business process outsourcing company in Bangalore, India. They’re a high-caliber lot, with 90 percent holding university degrees.

    But their English accents can vary significantly, depending on which language—at least 18 are spoken across India—they use at home, says Nandita Gurjar, Progeon’s vice president and head of human resources. Their grammar may require a tune-up. And, Gurjar adds, "in terms of their ability to interact with people from different cultures, they have absolutely no experience."

    These are the employees who will handle home-mortgage information, overdraft notification, telephone repair problems and myriad other tasks for Progeon’s 22 clients, which include major banks and telecommunications and financial services companies. Accuracy and customer rapport must be beyond reproach, Gurjar says. Ideally, callers, who are usually from Britain or the United States, won’t even suspect that their calls have been routed to another continent.

    To that end, Progeon officials have developed a boot camp that spans areas ranging from accent neutralization to industry and sales training. The training program, launched when Progeon opened its doors three years ago, may last as long as eight weeks for employees entrusted to handle sophisticated transactions.

    Employees hired to answer the phone, rather than communicate only by e-mail, devote two hours daily for six weeks striving to neutralize their accents, says Nandini Nathan, Progeon’s senior manager of organizational development. Training includes recording their voices and then rewinding and analyzing the tapes. Employees with strong regional accents are given tips, Nathan says: "Don’t speak too fast. Make sure the words are clearer."

    At the same time, new hires become immersed in their client’s world. Employees assigned a banking client will learn the industry’s jargon, history, even the latest headlines and scandals, both to better connect with customers and to stave off boredom.

    "Frankly, they (employees) are over-qualified for what they are doing," Gurjar says. With training, voice skills improve an average of 65 percent and customer-service skills by nearly 82 percent.

    Trainers also review cross-cultural flash points. The Indian approach to delivering bad news, generally more indirect so as not to offend, may fall flat with callers accustomed to a blunter delivery, Nathan says. Callers may be enraged if they realize they’ve been routed to India.

    The training seems to be working for Progeon and its employees. As of August, Progeon’s year-to-date turnover was 38 percent. Typical attrition runs 45 percent to 50 percent for people in voice-based areas and 15 percent to 20 percent for those who handle data only, according to a mid-2004 study by the National Association of Software and Service Companies, an Indian trade group.

    Progeon’s prodigious growth offers promise to ambitious new hires. In early 2005, the company employed nearly 3,422 people--nearly 1,000 more than it did last August. Two-thirds of supervisors handling Progeon’s voice-based transactions for its biggest banking client were internally promoted, Gurjar says. "It’s been much less costly to cultivate people from within."

    For excellence in its training program, which foresees the needs of this fast-growing business, Progeon is the winner of the 2005 Optimas Award for Vision.

Workforce Management, March 2005, p. 54 -- Subscribe Now!