Wanted! Regional language speakers for BPOs
Priyanka Golikeri/ DNA MONEY
Tuesday, 15 July , 2008,
Tucked away in a narrow lane off SV Road in Goregaon in a three-storey cream-coloured building is a 950-sq ft business process outsourcing (BPO) unit.

A spacious room in the building is filled with eight bays-files, computers, and knick-knacks on each of the 64 desks.

The 256-odd employees are busy replying to customer calls. But instead of speaking English in the much-ridiculed firang accent, they are actually interacting with customers in India's regional languages. The buzz in the room is a mix of Marathi, Gujarati, Assamese and Oriya.

This BPO unit is no pathbreaker. It is one among many that are now looking at tapping the domestic market, thereby opening career doors for millions of educated Indians from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Take the case of 20-year-old R Rukmini. The bespectacled, gangly second-year arts student works in a BPO in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. For a monthly salary of Rs 8,500, Rukmini spends her evenings Monday to Friday taking customer calls, expertly balancing her work with studies.

But before she joined here, Rukmini was worried about the restrictions her Tamil-based education placed on her job prospects. She thought she would have to go for extra coaching to polish her rudimentary English and become employable.

Soothing her worries, the domestic BPO gave her the opportunity to build a career in the language that she has been familiar with for the last 14-15 years of her life. Till recently, fluent English was required for a decent call centre job. Those with fluency in foreign languages such as French, German, Korean and Spanish, among others, were in greater demand. Much has changed, with the BPO industry, growing at 35-40% annually, now taking seriously the 15 Indian languages printed on any Rs 100 note.

Driving this trend is a surge in sectors such as telecom, banking, insurance, financial services, and retail, which are the top clients of domestic BPOs.

N K Srikanth, the head of operations at domestic BPO MphasiS, says the telecom industry adds millions of subscribers annually. "These companies need people proficient in local languages to deal with customers across regions within India. So the demand for people well-versed in regional languages is increasing," he adds.

Customers from non-urban areas prefer speaking in their local language, points out Radhika Balasubramanian, the chief operating officer (domestic BPO), Intelenet Global Services. "People fluent in regional languages ensure a better rapport with customers." Intelenet has about 15,000 employees in 13 centres. Estimated at $1.6 billion, the domestic BPO market has over 50 big and small players. It employs more than 5 lakh people, a workforce that the industry experts see swelling by at least 50% annually in the near future as domestic BPO players are fast expanding their base.

The $200 million Aegis Services BPO, which has nine centres, is planning three to four new units annually in the next few years. Managing director and chief executive Aparup Sengupta expects the company's client base of 78 to grow at 30-40% every year. "This means a monthly addition of an average of 500 people to our employee base of 16,000," he says.

This fiscal, Infovision Group would add about 5,000 people to its workforce of 10,500. According to founder and MD Aditya Gupta, this fiscal, the company would add four new centres to the existing 23.

MphasiS domestic BPO operations, which has 7,000 employees, would grow its workforce by 50% annually over the next few years, says Srikanth. "We have six centres, and will add more in tier-III areas such as Indore, Bellary and Hubli in Karnataka."

This means opportunities for regional language speakers with minimum 10+2 education and basic English and computer skills in tier-III and IV towns. Srikanth says that as much as 40% of its employees are non-graduates, mostly from non-English backgrounds.

The catch, however, is that these regional language-speaking employees get lower salaries compared to their English-speaking counterparts. The billing rate for domestic clients is about 20% lower than that for international clients, says Infovision's Gupta. "Hence, the salaries of employees servicing domestic clients are 20-40% lower than those who service international clients." Not that the employees are complaining. A starting salary of Rs 7,000-10,500 for customer service executives in domestic BPOs is no chickenfeed.