Cultural training moves offshore

Offshore staff receive training on communicating effectively with colleagues, customers in the U.S.

At a software development facility in Bangalore, trainer Saparna Jain is filming a conversation among Indian software engineers that she will play back to them with tips for improvement.

"Indians often do not look others in the eye, and that is often misunderstood by their customers or colleagues abroad as a lack of interest in the conversation," said Jain, who runs TrainCraft, which trains software staff on "soft skills," such as communicating effectively with colleagues and customers in the U.S., the U.K., and other countries.

Although these software professionals have been educated in English, their native tongue still has a strong influence on the way they write and speak English, according to Balakrishna Jayasimha, behavioral consultant and founder of Wynnwood Consultants in Bangalore. "They are usually translating from the mother tongue into English, when they speak or write," he said.

Wynnwood and TrainCraft are two of a growing number of such training outfits in Bangalore. Their key clients are software development and business process outsourcing (BPO) subsidiaries of multinational companies, as well as Indian outsourcing companies whose business comes primarily from the U.S. and Europe.

The training often does not stop at improving communications skills and "neutralizing" Indian accents, but also includes coaching in Western culture and etiquette, which in training industry jargon is called "cross-culture sensitivity."

Indians have very elaborate etiquette codes. But Western etiquette is a mystery to many of Bangalore's workers, who have traditionally preferred to eat with their hands, have avoided formal Western suits as unsuitable for the city's climate and shunned toilet paper as less hygienic than plain water.

The new business in training staff in Western communications skills and etiquette has attracted a number of entrepreneurs, many of them former employees in the hospitality industry.

"Our training includes practical dining sessions to train the staff on how they should eat with a knife and fork, choose the right wine and so on," said Jayasimha, who learned Western dining etiquette during a hotel management course and while working at an Indian hotel chain.

The money in this training business is good by Indian standards -- the rate per day for a workshop with about 20 trainees ranges from between $200 to $600, depending on the scope of the training. The investment required to get into the business is low, according to Jayasimha, who like most other trainers operates from his home and conducts the training at the client's facility.

The demand for training in the skills of a foreign culture is particularly high from call centers and companies that handle back-office processes. "The art is to ensure that the customer [in the U.K.] does not distinguish between a call that was taken in the U.K. and one that was taken in India," said Sudheesh Venkatesh, head of human resources at the IT and business support services subsidiary in Bangalore of Tesco, a U.K.-based retailer.

For example, employees at Tesco are advised to be current on political developments and favorite U.K. sports, so that they can talk about those topics with customers, Venkatesh said.

Software companies with a large number of staff traveling abroad also need to familiarize employees with the culture and etiquette of countries they visit. About 40 percent of the 1,600 staff at the software development and technical support subsidiary in Bangalore of LogicaCMG travel often to the company's key markets in the U.K. and the Netherlands, where they interact with both customers and LogicaCMG staff, said Sameer Khanna, head of training, compensation and special projects at the Bangalore operation of LogicaCMG, which is based in London.

LogicaCMG uses external trainers for accent "neutralization," but has in-house trainers who cover culture and etiquette of other countries, Khanna said. Tesco, too, plans to do most training in-house, as building in-house capability creates a replicable model and helps cut costs, Venkatesh said.

But some in the training business think that it is unnecessary to teach call-center staff to speak with Americanized accents. "In a country like America, people are talking to Puerto Ricans, they are talking to Polish people, and everybody is making himself understood, and there is no reason to think that the Indian accent is any more peculiar than the others," said Peter Craig-Jones, director of CWSolution, a training firm in Bangalore.

Besides making staff speak with Americanized accents, some call centers even instruct them to use American names instead of their Indian names when talking to customers in the U.S. "It is insulting to the employee because it is telling him that with a name like Rajaram, or any other Indian name, he is not going to be given any value at all by the Americans," Craig-Jones said.

CWSolution focuses on collaboration between software development teams in India and the U.S. The training programs include both Indian and U.S. staff. "It is very important that the American understands that this collaboration is not about re-engineering Indians to become Americans, but about Indians and Americans finding a common platform by which they can extract the maximum benefit," Craig-Jones said.

However, training non-Indians on Indian culture, values and manners is not big business, according to Jayasimha. The culture industry in Bangalore is mainly a one-way street, as most multinationals and Indian outsourcing companies focus only on training Indian staff to be able to operate in a westernized culture, he said.