Call Center Philippines: English Matters

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Conversation—it’s part of everyday life, and it’s also a skill that needs constant development, especially if you are conversing in a language other than your native one. In the Philippines, Filipino is the mother tongue, but English comes in close second as the most widely used language in the country—and some people are naturally more conversant in English than others.

“If a Filipino is a good conversationalist in English, that is a good gauge of how proficient he or she is in the language. This is an indicator that matters highly to contact centers in the Philippines, given that the industry relies on agents who speak daily to English-speaking customers,” says Ralf Ellspermann, CEO of PITON-Global, a leading call center in Manila, Philippines.

Of course, it’s apparent that Filipinos have high English proficiency, given the track record of the call center industry in the country. For the past 20 years, contact center companies have seen nothing but growth here, thanks to the talented, young and educated workforce which has become the industry’s backbone. 

What companies looking to outsource to a call center in the Philippines need to understand, however, is that while everyone in the country has exposure to the English language, the proficiency of agents is nuanced and varied, depending on their location, as well as their social and educational background.

“Consider the fact that while the Philippines has two official languages—Filipino and English—there are actually over 100 languages across the country’s provinces, which includes Kapampangan, Pangasinan, and Ilocano, up north in the island of Luzon; Waray, Cebuano, and Hiligaynon in the Visayas; and Chavacano, Mindanao, a language that is close to Spanish. Many in the Philippines aren’t just bilingual—there are those who are tri-, and even quadrilingual,” says Ellspermann.

So, unlike in the UK, where no matter the location, the usage of English is the same, the proficiency level in and the ability to use the language varies greatly across regions in the Philippines. If English proficiency in the country by regional areas could be given a grade, it would encompass the whole scale, from excellent to poor.

Metro Manila, being the prime center of education and industry in the country, is naturally home to many of the Philippines’ most highly English-proficient individuals. Generally, most Filipinos are introduced to the English language through school, since it is the medium of instruction for most subjects. However, there are some who also speak English at home—these are the people who usually live in Metro Manila —and this gives them a competitive advantage in the call center industry. They also normally use the language in their social circles, and that gives them even more of an advantage.

So, if you’re a company deciding on which call center in the Philippines to partner with, then the obvious choice would be an outsourcing provider that is located in Metro Manila. Overall, the talent pool in the Philippines is huge—roughly 73 million people are of working age—and among those, the best agents usually flock to the nation’s capital, as the region serves as the preferred service delivery location for globally leading contact center outsourcing providers and captive operators.

But what exactly should be the level of criteria for call center agents? Keep in mind that just because someone is living in Metro Manila doesn’t mean they were born and raised there, so it is best to work with a call center in the Philippines that thoroughly assesses potential agents. Aside from having a good grasp of English-speaking basics, such as grammar and pronunciation (and enunciation, too), ideal agents need to be able to listen well and have excellent comprehension skills. A script, after all, can only do so much for an agent, and if he or she chances upon a customer with unique issues, he or she must be able to gracefully and effectively respond to these concerns.

Of course, if you’re a call center in the Philippines looking for top-tier talent, then it would also be wise to invest in the people that can help your business grow. Filipinos with 2-3 years of call center work experience and outstanding English skills typically  know their worth and won’t work for a company offering anything less than £3 to £4 an hour. They know that they can easily find a better offer with industry-leading outsourcing providers or captive operators that generate around 70% of all call center-related employment opportunities in the Philippines. Offering a lower salary can still land you agents—just not the best ones who are needed to make programs work and to deliver a world-class customer experience.

Remember: In the call center industry in the Philippines, the English language proficiency of the agents can spell the difference between the success and failure of a support program. After all, this is a business driven by communication and if something gets lost in translation, then it is the client that suffers. That difference, ultimately, is influenced by agents’ proficiency in the English language, especially when used in conversation—which means companies outsourcing to the Philippines need to be mindful of which call centers they partner with. If they invest in agents with exceptional English skills, then they can also guarantee the highest-quality services to their clients.

“Quality comes at a cost. A low-cost contact centre competes on price, not quality. They simply can’t afford to hire and retain the country’s best, meaning most experienced and English-proficient agents that can earn twice as much with the country’s top 50 business process outsourcing providers. Offshore outsourcing works, but the approach has to be right. If you go offshore, be prepared to pay a few pounds more per hour with a premium call center in the Philippines,” says Ellspermann.