Archive for July, 2011

Shining up Your English for the Call Center

by on Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Jeepneys on the U.P. campus

Suppose you live in the Philippines, which is now the call center capital of the world. A lot of sales calls are based here—selling town homes, condos, time shares, stocks and bonds. Customer support is done here. Wherever there are people, from Baguio to Cebu, a call center will be set up with 20,000-25,000 employees working.

You are a graduating from the University of the Philippines, and you have some computer skills. In addition to Tagalog and perhaps another Filipino dialect you have reasonably good English. You decide to look for a job in a call center, which pays better than anything else you can think of. The average monthly salaries are mid-level—18,000 to 20,000 pesos [$409-$455]—which is a good income here. If you can get into management, you can work up to 40,000-60,000 [$909-$1,364] plus a car and benefits.

You spend several days going to interviews and getting tested. For each day, you’ve got to catch a jeepney on campus (shown above) and transfer to another jeepney. To get to the call centers you have to get up early in the morning and spend the day, so you need money for transportation, food and drink, which might be 150-200 pesos [$3.40-$4.55]. This is hard for you to come up with, but your mother gives you the money. You do well, so you’re hired. Then you have to undergo training, which includes work on your English, since it’s not quite good enough for dealing with foreigners over the telephone. The American who is training your trainer to use the equipment is a friendly guy named Charlie.

Charlie’s story

The most interesting part of the work I’ve done is the hire screening, because that’s where you figure out who gets to train and what describes a person who’s trainable. Yes, the ability to offer alternatives is an important skill, but it’s a higher level skill for this industry. Because a lot of time when you’re talking about giving somebody an alternative you’re talking about, say, a travel account. “The flight to Topeka for tomorrow is full, but I could get you into Kansas City and connect you with another flight to Topeka.” That requires the ability to give reasonable alternatives that are based in some analysis of the problem. As much as you can give people formats and policies for making those decisions, you can’t teach somebody how to think that doesn’t know how to think. Many times I’ve said, “Sorry. I can’t train that.”

I haven’t gotten far into this, but if you think of empathy as being able to relate to other people’s wants, their needs, their feelings, I think sometimes that is a social attribute that’s missing. I notice that you can you could walk into a convenience store and say, “I’d like a hard pack of Marlboro Lights.” And they’ll say, “Sorry out of stock.” [Out of stock is the most frequently used English phrase in the Philippines.] When they could say, “We have soft pack.” Just to be absolutely ridiculous, you might walk into the next store and ask for Marlboro Lights and they’d say, “Well, we don’t have those, but you could consider buying some gum instead.”

I’m not a trainer. My field is business administration, not education. What I do is teach the trainer how to use the tools, and I’m concerned with only a small subset of what happens in the foundation training, which is basically do you speak well, can you think well, can you do this and that. This is different from the specific job training. It’s been my observation that most foundation trainees have a very good command of English. They have a very light accent and they speak grammatically correctly, possibly with more correctness than the average American. [The English spoken by educated Filipinos tends to be rather stiff, formal and peppered with old-fashioned or archaic word usage.]

The trainees often lack critical thinking skills, so their ability to apply English effectively is sometimes limited. Math, logic, reasoning, science are typical weaknesses. General critical thinking is extremely sparse. I’ve tried to look at why that is, and the only conclusion I can come to is that most education here, in both public and private schools, grades one through ten, is very memorization-based. In multiplication tables, they memorize each and every cell in the table. It’s like they don’t know why one times one equals one. They think back to where one times one intersects in that chart and they realize the answer is one. Five times five, they don’t know it’s twenty-five, but they think back to their chart and they realize it’s twenty-five. Foundation training is obviously not a comprehensive training of anything other than how to sound intelligent when you’re talking to call center customers.

The only training I’m involved with is on the voice and accent side, using different products for teaching voice and accent. The company I’m affiliated work uses products from Carnegie Mellon University, called Carnegie Speech, which is actually a recommended product for TOEIC [Test of English for International Communications] and TOFEL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] review. We have software products for testing and teaching spoken language for non-native speakers who already have a pretty good command of English. What we’re teaching is voice, accent, grammar, word stress, pacing, pausing, pitch, inflection, intonation. Things like that. But again, we’re not teaching somebody how to use language intelligently. We’re taking competent speakers and making them sound more neutral. So for example we teach reduction, which here means removing the pauses between words that a native speaker tends to run together, so that you sound fluent, as opposed to proper.

The products we use are interactive. The call centers buy the licenses. One license that’s good for one person for one year is a hundred dollars. That’s unlimited usage for one year. But it’s not sold on an individual basis. They’re looking for a couple of hundred people to buy it, and after that the prices start going down significantly per user. So our average order usually ends up being closer to $50 per person per year.

This is where Carnegie Speech really excels. All of the curriculum is 100% individualized and tailored for the actual participant. When the trainees begin, they take an assessment that shows where their biggest strengths and weaknesses are, and it configures a curriculum that attacks their biggest weaknesses first. Generally we see with people who have a pretty good command of English but have a poor accent, it’s only about four or five different skills that keep their accent from being neutral. And if those are diagnosed at the outset and treated first, we see that we have generally pretty darned good success in getting somebody to a much more neutral state in ten to twelve hours of study.

There’s word stress and intonation and then there’s also the thirty-eight different phonetic sounds. The acoustic software will show visually the frequencies of sounds spoken in standard American speech compared with the sounds spoken by the trainee. For example, our unstressed vowels are reduced. The second syllable in “doctor” is unstressed, so the vowel is an unstressed “uh.” It isn’t pronounced like “tore,” as in “I tore up the paper.” Using acoustic charts, the trainee gets visual feedback and can modify the vowel until it matches the standard.

The software will drill down into the different disciplines of grammar, which means it doesn’t just say, “You have a grammar problem.” It says, “You have a problem with these prepositions,” and it goes down into the exact subset. Because it does that, it can train a heck of a lot faster than any other tools available. It’s mimicking a one-on-one learning environment. So we find that with people who have a pretty good command of English their weakness just lies within some areas of grammar or accent and can be cleaned up pretty quickly. Now, speech is a muscle-memory exercise, the same as a golf swing is or shooting a basket, so use it or lose it. And what we find is that, while you might do ten or twelve hours over two or three days and really get a big benefit, you’ve got to keep doing refresher training, whether—maybe it’s one or two hours a week, but you’ve got to keep at it.

So we did a remedial program a few years ago at a call center where we had twenty people who were slated for dismissal because of the poor QA [quality assurance] scores with regard to speech. The people they were talking to on the phone were having a poor customer experience because they couldn’t understand them. In the call centers, QA is a big deal. You’ve heard the message, “Your call might be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Well, out of about a hundred calls they listen to, they’ll randomly sample them, looking for whether the employee was understandable, whether the customer was handled appropriately and given proper alternatives. There’s this big score card that they’re looking at.

Were you being helpful for the customer or were you just answering “yes, no, yes, no”? But if you’re flagged by QA enough times for any given thing, they’ll either put you out the door or put you into some type of remedial training. So we were working with twenty people—this was on a pilot basis—that were slated for dismissal for poor communication skills, and because of their improvement in speech all twenty people were able to keep their jobs. But when you get a program like that, we’re already pretty well cherry-picking because we know that we’re dealing with people that have already passed some types of screening, they’ve already been through some training, but they’ve had slippage in some skills. So it’s not like you’re starting from the very beginning, and you’re working with pretty good material.

Unfortunately, how an employee handles a difficult customer situation is trial by fire. I’ve listened to a few traumatizing phone calls. For instance, there was a woman who was taking her very first phone call ever, and she was taking it from a guy who wanted to dispute a bill. Almost anybody would be taken aback by the kind of abuse he was giving her—fuck this, fuck that, fuck you, fuck everyone. She panicked and said, “Sir, sir, sir, please stop fucking me.” Another guy was negotiating extremely hard on the phone, trying to negotiate a bill down. He was talking with a woman who didn’t have the authority to negotiate. What she finally said, was, “No, sir, I will not go down on you.”

One of the challenges we have is to try to teach people how to understand English idioms because without knowledge of some of the more common ones they’re lost.

A Writer on Sexual Health, Part 2

by on Monday, July 18th, 2011

Journalist Ana Santos

Currently, divorce is unavailable in the Philippines, although rumor has it that if you have money an annulment can be arranged. A divorce law has been introduced. [ See  Couplings and Un-couplings in a Land without Divorce.” <>]

Sex and Sensibilities incorporated this year. I want to promote sexual health and talk about solo parenting. I’ve been a solo mom for the last ten years after I left the father of my child. I was the assistant vice president of a bank. I think there were two of us in my department who left our marriages. I was very frustrated with the way people regarded the situation. First was the usual [fake sympathetic] “What happened? Are you okay?” [I laughed.] I mean, you get it, Carol. I don’t even have to explain. I said, “What do you mean?”— “We’re just asking because we care.”

Yeah, so what do you want to do? Help pay my electricity bill, pay for my daughter’s education? I got very upset, and I was told, “Oh, let it be, you know? People mean well.” I wondered why I should let it be. I think people need to be taught their boundaries. “Oh, what’s going to happen with your daughter? Oh, poor you.”

That would really frustrate me a lot. And I lost a lot of friends because of that also. If I had listened to that bullshit I would have felt sorry for myself and not done anything to make something of my life despite the circumstances. If you just cower it can become really overwhelming. I was the first one in my family to have left a marriage. A lot of people when they leave a marriage go abroad. They run away from all this. But I didn’t do that.

I’ve taken on an initiative for solo moms called Happy Even After. It was inspired by a solo parent ad which defines solo parents as those who have been married or not, those who have been abandoned, those whose spouses have been incarcerated or are working overseas. At the end of the day, we are all parents who are bringing up our children on our own. We want to find out how other parents do it or be able to talk to someone who knows what we’re going through. In November of last year, we started with a workshop where we got single moms to talk about their own experience, just to bring people together to talk. Afterwards I wanted to do a workshop series, but I wasn’t happy with the turnout, about twelve or fifteen people. That’s fine because some people are not ready. They’re very private, or they’re in a different stage of recovery from the failed marriage. For me it was a period of immense grief. What died in me was the whole idea that I would be growing old with someone. My understanding of Filipino law is that former spouses don’t get spousal support, just child support.

My conclusion is that marriage is not for everybody, but I think I’m very fortunate to have lived outside the Philippines, so I know that in other places it’s different. No place is perfect. I lived in the U.S., which has its own problems, but you also get to pick out certain things that you want to live by. I learned to believe that whatever talent I have I can take myself forward with it, just by working very hard. You know, it’s the land of equal opportunity and I think that’s one of the titles that it deserves best.

Here very few people question anything. In the Philippines the whole country’s all about love and romance and all of that. When I left the marriage, it was very hard for people to understand. It didn’t help that I worked in a bank with a very traditional atmosphere. Everybody there had traditional lives and lived with them, and they couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t live with mine. I was very young also—twenty-seven or twenty-eight. My friends were getting married, and I was done. Other people were in the middle of getting promotions and getting jobs which paid them 100% more, and I had to struggle make ends meet. I wasn’t into either of those things.

Ten years later, I have a wider network now because of Sex and Sensibilities and because of my work as a journalist. People often ask me, how do you do it? How do you manage being a solo mom in this country without a lot of financial help? I don’t know. Somebody told me that Phil‑Health [an HMO], which is our foremost insurance corporation, doesn’t cover pregnancy if you’re not married. Since when do people need to be married to have a baby? It’s an archaic law, but nobody questions it. It’s only after you’re pregnant without a husband that you find out. I don’t intend to “fix” any of that. But I think by virtue of what I went through and from what I know in all of the work I’ve done, there are some things that I can share and there are things that I can let other good girls know, people who are going through the same thing.

So right now I’m working on just making a journal for Happy Even After, for solo moms. It’s a private venue where you talk about yourself and what you’re going through. I’m supposedly launching it in November on my birthday. Happy Even After says it all, doesn’t it? So that’s my big plan for this year. Sex and Sensibility is the parent company, Happy Even After will be one of the subsidiaries.

I found a beneficiary also, which is one of the things that helps me get over my feeling of helplessness—because you’re suddenly confronted with a situation that you can’t control. Apart from dealing with a child, it just brings you into a whole new world of surprises, right? It helped me to find other people that I could help. You don’t have to be rich to do it. I was in the Ayala Mall, and I found a donation box for the HERO Foundation—Help Educate and Rear Orphans of Soldiers Killed in Action—which is essentially a group of widows of enlisted men from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It took me a while to find them. This is where being a journalist comes into play. I asked around and eventually found them. The enlisted man must have been killed or permanently incapacitated in the line of duty. It’s administered by the AFP. Officers’ wives don’t get this benefit. Your donation goes to educating the children. There’s a stipend level for elementary through college. We also have a plan to teach the wives alternative livelihood skills. They’re mostly housewives without domestic help to take care of the children, so they stay home. After the husband is killed or permanently disabled, she has to become the breadwinner.

After I found HERO, I met with them, and I explained upfront exactly what we do. I’m fully aware that some people don’t want to deal with me, because my company, Sex and Sensibilities, has “sex” in its name. I’m not mincing words when it comes to what we talk about. It turns some people off. But I met with them, and I told them exactly what we do and I explained that I didn’t want them to find out later when someone asked, “What are you doing with this woman?” They had no problem with my company. My father was in the AFP for thirty-some years. So they were very welcoming, Sex and Sensibilities makes donations to them. Every time I give a talk at a school I ask for donations for the AFP Hero Foundation.

That’s something that’s very meaningful to me, not just because they’re solo moms but because they’re the wives of army personnel. I grew up with an army father. I know what it’s like. I mean, we weren’t rich. “We could be,” my father used to say, “but I wouldn’t be able to stomach feeding you with money I knew was dirty money.” Back when I was seventeen, I thought I didn’t care where the money came from. I later realized that that was a difficult choice to make. My father is a retired general—you retire at one rank higher. We weren’t rich, so I can’t imagine what life must be like for enlisted men. So it means a lot to me to help the solo moms like me and army wives like my mom. I didn’t want to find a beneficiary that was just nice. There are lots of them that are directly linked or have like-minded objectives, but no others that so mirror what my life has been like and what I believe in and the things that are important to me.

Your other question was, what do I do as a journalist? There’s so much going on you really have to find the time to write. In writing you need to be out meeting people, not just in your room. So for about a week I’m attending the European Journalism Institute in Prague, Czech Republic, starting July 9.  I got a scholarship given by the Fund for American Studies. You submit an article and a motivational letter, they interview you over the phone about what your expectations are and all of that. They created a Facebook page recently so you’re able to see who else is attending. I’m thinking , Oh my god, a number of the attendees are twenty and twenty-two. I found that very interesting because in my late twenties, when I had just left my daughter’s father, I was single again and just starting a new life as a single woman and dating. And now in my thirties I’m going to be a student again. So maybe I’m living my life backwards. At my old job I was assistant vice president at the bank. That’s stable, right? The other people at the bank couldn’t understand why I was leaving.

But that’s it. I’ve come to the realization that I’m going to live my life the way I want to. Not because it’s the normal thing to do—to get married and have a child and be the vice president of your company and then retire there. I want to do it for myself. For a long time I didn’t know what that was. I’m still trying to find out. I just know that I want to write. A lot of the changes in me happened because I wrote. I found out about HIV-AIDS. I found out about problems we have in the country with reproductive health because I needed to write about it. I started speaking to people about it and then I started writing about it. I got scholarships because of the things that I wrote. All the opportunities I’ve had and the people I know, that’s all because I write. So writing is the one thing I never want to give up. I’ll be writing until the day I die. You just have to know what you want to do. Then the path that it takes to get there, it’ll come. It’s not easy, but it’ll come.

A Writer on Sexual Health, Part 1

by on Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Journalist Ana Santos

I’m involved in sexual health advancement, especially for women in this country, and I do it in any form that it takes. A long time ago I started out as a sex columnist in a men’s magazine. It was just fun stuff. [For example, when and how to talk dirty to a potential partner.] Men would write in with the kind of question you’d expect, like “how big do you have to be to make a girl come?” But I had more people—mostly women—writing in with very serious questions, like where to get a prescription for a birth control pill from a doctor who wouldn’t be judgmental and ask whether she was married. Or questions about where someone could get tested for sexually transmitted infections.  Or what to do if the condom broke. I didn’t know the answers to these questions, and I thought there must be something wrong if people were bringing them to a sex columnist with no credentials in sexual health. I didn’t even know the term.

Then some of my friends found out that they were HIV positive. That shocked me very much because I’d always thought HIV happened to other people—and not here. What mostly shocked me was my own reaction. I thought that they were going to die. I didn’t know much about at all. So I started reading up on HIV. I needed to understand what it was that my friends may have been going through. Later I realized that I was in a capacity to write about these things. I’m in a capacity to educate and inform people so I should use that real estate [platform] that I have—I mean, all writers have some sort of real estate. My friends were educated, well traveled, and still didn’t know enough to protect themselves or had a false sense of invincibility, and I did too.

So I started writing more about HIV and safer sex. At first I couldn’t figure how to do it without sounding like some hussy. I wanted someone to talk about sex in an informed, honest and non-judgmental manner, and I felt that she didn’t have to be a sex pot to do it. You’ve been in this country long enough to know the ball game, right? And a person can get well-informed just by reading. So I started writing about HIV—in different magazines, for the foreign wires, everywhere that I could. I got in touch with a lot of different people from the development community. Then I got a media scholarship to attend the International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. That was in Bali in 2009. And that’s where things really opened up for me. In the international community they were so much more advanced in terms of discussing sexually transmitted infection. None of this bullshit about “how did you get it?” They weren’t disregarding moral beliefs, but they had taken the discussion to a higher plane. That’s where I also came across the phrase “sexual health.” Until then I didn’t know how to put into words what I was doing. I came face to face with the people who were doing it in the international world. I met a lady who’s the operations director for a condom project. Her job is essentially to go around the world de-stigmatizing condoms, so she thinks of events and activities, very creative ways, through theater, through art. And she’s a Filipina born and raised in the U.S. I saw that this was where I wanted to bring the discussion.

So I returned with all this information, and I knew what to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. I got another scholarship to the Asian Institute of Management in Makati for a course on professional blogging and internet marketing. Anton Dias was our teacher. He said, “You should think of a project that you want to do, and I’ll teach you how to take it online and make it into a business for you.” So with the technical know-how, I started Sex and in January of 2010.

I wanted to talk to young girls in their twenties who are just like me, who were not promiscuous, who were in relationships, who might be experimenting. I wanted to talk to them about sexuality in a positive way and in their language. Girls who were middle-class, who were working. [Remember that this is a highly polarized society.] The other side of the spectrum on reproductive health is the poor, marginalized woman. To me, not being poor and marginalized gives those women a false sense of security. “Oh, that’s just a poor woman’s concern. It’s not mine.”

The battlefield here is the imposed ignorance, right? And the subsequent shame. So I said enough. Girls are going to be asking these questions, even though they’re not going to admit that they’re even having sex or that they want to explore. I think it’s a woman’s own business, but she should know what’s out there and what her options are. I thought an online information portal would be perfect because people could reach out anonymously without worrying that they might be recognized.

But it wasn’t enough, so we started doing sexual health workshops. I sat down with friends from the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and discussed family planning. We developed a module for a sexual health workshop. My contribution was to spin it in a way that would be more interesting. We put it in a three-part module about safer sex and HIV prevention, which is proper condom use.

The Philippines was one of the first countries to have enacted an HIV-AIDS law, Republic Act 8504. It’s the AIDS Prevention and Control Act. It has stipulations about education, information, your rights when you get tested, you rights if you find out that you’re positive. It stipulated that you were not to be denied a burial, for example, you’re not to be denied certain loans or employment benefits if you are found to be positive. It was one of those really marvelously thought-out laws. We have a number of AIDS-related laws, but people don’t know enough about them. The onus is on you as an individual to uphold your rights according to these laws, so you have to know what they are.

The last part of our workshop module deals with stigma and discrimination. The whole module is about better understanding, which is how you break that stigma. So for the last year we’ve been doing the module in universities and offices. I would love to do it in a high school, but the schools have asked me to limit the audience to students eighteen years of age and above. They’re concerned about what the parents are going to say. I would love to talk to a younger group because experimentation and exploration doesn’t start at eighteen. Some of them are already pregnant at eighteen. But you know what the temperature is in this country when it comes to sex and anything related to it. I have found allies in certain multinational companies that actually have gender and diversity groups, so they are mandated to come up with such information, activities or talks.

I also do self-esteem workshops for girls. The girl who gets pregnant is not the stereotype of the loose girl who can’t wait to pull up her skirt. She’s actually a very nice girl who just didn’t want to say no because she was in love, right? I think we should fix that notion of what love should be. It’s not all about surrender. It should be primarily about the person herself. You can’t talk to a girl about sex in terms of “do this” and “do that.” You have to talk to her about the emotional side of it. I would start with her feelings about herself. If you’ve got a high level of self-esteem, if you just even have dreams for yourself, if you’ve got a certain level of ambition and you see yourself as achieving certain things, you’re going to do whatever you can to protect your path to that dream. I start by saying, “Let’s talk about you. Have you taken the time to think about what your dreams are, what your talents are and where you can bring that?”

I don’t think we have enough of that for the girls. The Filipina is one of the most hard-working women I’ve ever seen. She will work, and she will do what she’s told. She will be self‑sacrificing and brave. But I don’t see enough women who dream for themselves and maybe take a different path apart from the regular one here. I don’t see many ambitious Filipinas, and I think that’s because ambition is still thought to be bad. It doesn’t have to be. When you know that you can achieve certain things, you’re not going to let some guy tell you, “Oh, I don’t have a condom, but love me anyway.” Then put all the responsibility on you and take off later on. If you have a certain level of ambition, you’re not going to do that because you’re protecting yourself.

But the environment here is not conducive to looking out for yourself. Babies are blessings. Girls will tell you, “No, God meant for me to become pregnant.” I’m sure you’ve heard that also. I have a foreign friend who just moved to the country, she got into conversation with some very young girls who were working in a department store. She was shocked that a number of them had babies, and that’s why they were working. The babies were in the province being taken care of by the grandparents. The girls were dreaming of going abroad. She wanted to tell them it wasn’t God’s will for them to have unprotected sex, that they needed to take control over their own lives.

You know that argument that babies are a blessing. I’m not going to contest that, and I don’t need to. But I think the proper mindset should be, “Yes, babies are a blessing, and that’s exactly why you need to be deserving of them, which means being able to clothe them, feed them and educate them and give them a better life than you had yourself.”

It’s not just a poor woman’s issue. The very middle-class girls have the same problem. That’s why we wanted to target them, because these are the girls that already have access to education. [Also English and computers.] Sometimes a girl winds up pregnant, and because they’re a middle-class family it just throws the whole budget, all the finances, out of whack. Now she’s deprived of the chance to go back to school and study, where she would have been able to go to school , finish school, get a job, maximize her potential, find out what her other talents are.

At the end of the day, you need money. Then you can do that for yourself. Just because you’re poor or middle-class now, come on, you can work, you can get money and acquire other skills so that you can improve yourself. It’s just frustrating, because the Filipina is one of the most hard-working women. She’s ready to do just about anything. If you give her a baby, she’s going to fight tooth and nail to give that baby a life. But what about her? She also needs a quality of life, she needs to be educated as well as have educated children.

My niece was fourteen when she gave birth. Earlier, my mother and I were arguing. I said, “Mom, do you know that she’s pregnant?” — “No, of course not. She’s only 13.” — I said, “Mom, she’s pregnant. I’m telling you.” – Then later my mom said she’d visited her and her baby. My mother didn’t know how to express what she felt. My niece was going to school. For about a year after the baby was born, she was still able to go to school, but then she had to drop out because there was nobody else to take care of the baby. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Beautiful girl, young, her future ahead of her, gets pregnant. There’s a boyfriend. She’s still with the same guy. But I think there’s a proper time and place for all of that.