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Monday, August 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:33 A.M.

Microsoft's call-center business in India gets an American accent

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology reporter

AMI VITALE / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
Andrea Koehler, a language coach working for Microsoft who used to teach at the University of Washington, works with a new employee at Microsoft's customer-support center in Bangalore, India.
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BANGALORE, India — Indians working at Microsoft's new call center in Bangalore may sound a bit like they're from Seattle.

For the past year, the center's 350 employees have been taught to speak more like Americans by Seattleite Andrea Koehler, a former University of Washington language instructor, who is part of Microsoft's training team.

During a six-week language program, Koehler teaches the "technical-support professionals" to speak in a way that's clearer and easier to understand by U.S. customers who call for help with their Microsoft products.

They also receive training in popular culture and current events to improve their conversational skills.

Koehler likes the workers to listen to National Public Radio and watch Ken Burns documentaries. But the workers prefer to get their U.S. culture from action movies such as "Independence Day" and sitcoms like "Friends." In the end they get a mix of things they'll enjoy watching and things that Koehler and Microsoft want them to learn.

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Imitating radio and TV broadcasts helps the workers internalize those speech patterns, Koehler said, and enables them to control the up-and-down Indian speech patterns that can be hard for U.S. customers to understand.

"It comes out more even, so somebody in North America is able to easily understand them," she said. "In the language group, our goal customer is the person in middle America that's never really spoken to anyone with an accent before. As long as they can understand them and deal with them without having any problem, we're OK."

Koehler, who received a master's degree in linguistics from the UW in 1999, previously worked with Microsoft immigrant employees in Redmond who took night classes to improve their English-speaking skills.

Koehler said the workers' Indian accent never goes away, but she does hear echoes of NPR in their language sometimes. "What you end up hearing is they're given the tools to turn the accent on and turn it off, which is a really wonderful skill because they get on the phone and put their phone voice on," she said. "They're able to interact that way."

Growing presence in India

Despite the prospect of rigorous training and boring videos, more than 9,000 people applied to Microsoft when the company opened its call center last year in a city that has emerged as India's Silicon Valley. The center began testing last July and became fully operational in October. It primarily serves customers using Microsoft's technical products.
 
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The call center is one of several ways Microsoft is expanding its presence in India, where it began selling software in 1990. It's also expanding a development center that opened in Hyderabad in 1998, hiring Indian software companies to test and develop custom applications.

Altogether, the company employs about 1,000 people in India, but it's likely to expand soon. A new campus opening in Hyderabad next year may have room for perhaps another 1,000.

The Bangalore office, in a new office park that also houses IBM and Dell, has room for 500 employees. It also houses sales and administrative staff and raises the company's profile in India's most tech-oriented city.

"Being in Bangalore enabled us to reach more customers. It enabled us to reach more partners; it enabled us to do some things that we couldn't do before," said Krish Srinivasan, a Microsoft manager who moved from Redmond back to his native Bangalore last summer.

Time-zone advantage

With its call center, Microsoft is following other multinational companies that have been shifting customer-support work to India for a decade. It's taking advantage of the country's roughly 12-hour time difference, high levels of education, low wages and English skills.

Employment at call centers more than doubled, from 30,000 in 2001 to 65,000 in 2002, according to India's National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom). The trade group expects employment to reach 150,000 in 2006 and more than 1 million by 2012.

One factor is the cost savings for U.S. companies, which are also the biggest customers of call-center services. Service-worker salaries in India are $6,179 versus $42,927 in the U.S., according to Nasscom.

The wages are high by Indian standards, however, and the industry has created a generation of relatively affluent young people concentrated in tech centers such as Bangalore.

Meanwhile, the growth rate of U.S. call centers has slowed since their peak in 2000, according to research by London-based Datamonitor. Proliferating during the late 1990s, they brought a touch of the tech boom to far-flung corners of the U.S., where service providers found ready supplies of labor at relatively low wages.

But service at even lower wages became available in India and other countries. Some U.S. centers have abruptly closed, including one in downtown Yakima that cut 360 jobs earlier this year. When the Bangalore center opened, some employees at Microsoft's U.S. call centers — including one in Sammamish with 800 employees — feared their jobs would be cut.

Altogether, Microsoft employs about 2,400 people at call centers in Sammamish; Charlotte, N.C.; and Las Colinas, Texas.

So far Microsoft is expanding, not cutting. But the executive in charge acknowledges that eventually some U.S. employees may lose their jobs as the group consolidates and increases its use of service vendors in India and other developing countries.

The need for in-person service may also decline because the company is developing technology to answer customer questions and solve problems from within its software, said Lori Moore, vice president for customer support.

"Today, could I say that people are going to lose their jobs? Probably some people may, but when and what that looks like, I honestly couldn't tell you yet and I certainly would let our people be the first to know," she said in Redmond earlier this year.

Moore said some support employees may end up in different jobs. "With our people, one of the key messages I deliver is to make sure that they all understand that, yes, things will change," she said, "and as an employee they all have to understand what skills they have and how those skills can be transferred to other parts of Microsoft's business."

For consumers, a call to Microsoft for technical support may be their first introduction to India's high-tech industry.

Calls for help with Microsoft Windows or other consumer products, however, are unlikely to be routed to Bangalore. Those calls are mostly handled by outside companies operating elsewhere in India, Canada and other countries.

Microsoft formulated its global approach five years ago when it began overhauling and consolidating its support operations. The new, more global approach includes a common set of performance standards for vendors, standards developed by using in-house call centers as a laboratory and testing ground.

Among a handful of employees in Bangalore, nearly all said they had taken calls from U.S. customers who resented Microsoft's use of Indian labor, but such calls were few and far between.

George Jose, an employee who relocated to Bangalore from the Las Colinas facility last year, said one customer commented to him and management staff that "American companies and all the support should remain in the country."

One customer, Seattleite Sam Pittman, recently canceled his subscription to Microsoft's MSN service after getting what he considered rude service from an Indian call-center worker. Pittman said he later spoke to an employee who apologized and asked him to keep his subscription, but he quit on principle.

Pittman is from North Carolina, where his mother used to work at a textile factory that closed in 1998, so he's especially sensitive to U.S. companies shifting work overseas. "I think its going to virtually wipe out the middle class," he said.

Jose remembers similar fears at the Los Colinas facility. He said concerns there about job loss resulting from work shifting overseas may have come from an employee spreading rumors, but there was already tension in the state's "Silicon Corridor" near Dallas, where aviation and telecommunications companies have cut thousands of jobs.

Other employees at the Bangalore center said some customers expect to talk to someone in India when they call and seem to enjoy the experience.

"I've had at least four to five [customers] who, when they called actually asked me, 'Are you based out of there?' " said Ashish Chetal. "We just chatted generally about how it is to work here, and actually gone ahead and had a beautiful working relationship."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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