How To Assess For Success In Offshore English Skills

**This article is reposted with permission from Dr. Jane Lockwood –  Training Industry Magazine** 

call center english skills

A high standard of spoken English is a key commodity in contact centers and shared services, but achieving this standard can be a challenge in offshore operations, where customer service representatives (CSRs) speak English as a second or even third language.

Did you know that:

  • Over two million CSRs are employed in English-speaking contact centers in India and the Philippines alone?
  • CSRs mostly deal with customers in USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand – all English-speaking countries.
  • English communication training and assessment costs are estimated at more than $300 per employee per year.

These large investments are intended to measure and improve the language skills of this CSR workforce, but  most organizations have no way to tell if the tools and processes they use actually impact business performance.


Businesses still believe that grammar accuracy and accent neutralization will result in great CSR communication when serving English-speaking customers globally. However, studies have shown that this is not the case. The causes of breakdown relate to the ability to:

  • Interact on the phone with a wide variety of business customers worldwide.
  • Explain a business product or process clearly and logically on the phone.
  • Integrate business knowledge and skills seamlessly into the service exchange.

 Grammar and pronunciation can measure language and proficiency but not language performance.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) distinguishes these two measures and defines language performance as the combined effect of interpersonal, interpretative and presentation skills. It is language performance that directly impacts quality criteria, including:

  • Average handling time (AHT)
  • First-time resolution (FTR)
  • Voice of the customer (VOC) and net promoter score (NPS)
  • Sales targets

An effective assessment therefore must include performance criteria.


Business communication measurement is a fairly new area of academic research, since the offshore industry itself is a recent phenomenon. However, there is now a body of research that applies a linguistic approach and best practices in language testing to identify what really matters in communication measurement and how to implement it in business:

There are three main principles:
  1. Give the central importance of spoken English communication, its measurement needs to be both summative (providing an overall score that benchmarks a candidate for employment and appraisal) and formative ( providing an analytical diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of the CSR’s communication skills) so that training and coaching can be targeted effectively.
  2. A measurement tool needs to be:
  • Valid: The test relates to the performance required. For example, giving a written grammar test to candidates will not demonstrate whether they can communicate well on the phone.
  • Reliable: Assessment personnel will understand and interpret the measurement tool in the same way, leading to consistent scores.
  • Practical: The test is cost- and time-effective compared to its value to the user organization.
  1. The washback of a good communications assessment rubric ensures that coaching support will be comprehensive and relevant. Washback means that the assessment criteria and the training and coaching are consistent and aligned.

Because English communication is the core skill for contact center employees, the business should make summative and formative assessments every day. In recruitment departments, for example, large numbers of applicants are assessed on a daily basis, with typically fewer than 10 percent making it to employment. Developing these new employees through training and coaching ensures high-quality customer service, and this training requires formative, or diagnostic, assessment and feedback.

Both these summative and formative functions require a common rubric, a measurement tool comprised of key criteria related to business success and a set of competency levels that define the spoken communication ability of the CSR. These criteria are normally presented in a table, and each criterion and level has its own descriptor.

For call centers, the key performance criteria relate to:

  • Content completion of the calls:  Were the business knowledge and process communicated accurately and comprehensively?
  • Control of the call flow: Was the CSR able to manage the call professionally, explaining business issues clearly, logically and coherently?
  • Customer relationship-building: Was the CSR able to develop a good customer relationship by, for example, listening, empathizing, and apologizing?
  • Overall English vocabulary, grammar, and phonological choices: Was the CSR able to make appropriate and accurate choices while being globally comprehensible?


A number of projects have looked at the validity of this linguistically informed assessment approach and tool both in summative usage in recruitment and its formative usage in coaching.


Are the assessment scores in proficiency and performance domains good predictors of successful performance?

recruitment pic-min-crop.jpg

To answer this question, a study was carried out in a large outsourcing contact center in Manila. Researches selected a representative sample of 31 high performers, middle performers and low performers and measured the correlation between their performance and their proficiency and performance assessment scores at recruitment. CSRs who scored higher in performance domains at recruitment were significantly better performance on actual service calls, while the proficiency-only assessment had no statistically significant predictive value.

On-the-Job Assessment, Diagnosis and Coaching Support

Does this approach to measurement and washback impact business performance?

In a study in a financial shared service company in India, communications coaches were trained to use this research-based approach over a two-month period in their regular coaching sessions. The study compared pilot group CSRs who received this coaching with another group who received the usual form of coaching. The researchers compared the groups based on the business’ key performance indicators (KPIs): AHT, hold time, quality scorecard results, sales targets and VOC.

The pilot group showed strong progression from pre-coaching results to post-coaching results, with improvement in all KPIs. The biggest improvement was in sales. The control group, however, showed no significant improvement in the same period. For that group, some metrics (VOC,hold time) had minor improvement, while others (sales, AHT) had a drop in performance.

These results demonstrated strong quantitative evidence that the approach succeeded. From a qualitative viewpoint, surveys and focus group discussions showed that the coaches preferred this approach to the previous scorecard-based coaching, saying that the approach was more “fair, systematic, and objective.”

Testing proficiency alone provides a snapshot in time and it makes it very difficult to develop call center CSRs effectively. With more research focusing on workplace language testing and linguistics, there are opportunities to use these approaches to make our organizations – and our jobs – better.

Interested in  assessing communication skills in recruitment? Download our FREE “How to Recruit the Perfect Agent” whitepaper.

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