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Non-Native Speakers and Accents

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#1   Posted: 8 Sep 2007 00:09

Here is a topic I have not had to confront on many occasions, but it has cropped up a couple of times.

What are some thoughts around the idea of customer service employees (let's say CSRs that provide phone support) that are not native speakers of the language of business? Are there any experiences that involved client (or "near-client") disapproval over the way someone speaks and how this was addressed? For instance, if you are in the United States or Canada or the UK, where English is the primary language of business, and you have an employee whose mother tongue is not English and the employee has an accent--does anyone have any stories to tell about any negative reactions and how this situation evolved or otherwise?

I have had a situation in the past where both French and English were required for a very brief project. Neither of those languages was the first or second language owned by the person reporting to me. The person got the work done in what I considered record time with no problems that I noted. The person's accent tended to be thick at certain times, but I don't recall this being a "lost cause" where understanding the person's speech is concerned. At the end of the project, I received a complaint that apparently some number of individuals were displeased with the accent the person had in one of those languages. No metrics on that dissatisfaction, as none were supplied.

How did I handle that? I didn't provide a lot of reaction to the internal messenger of the complaint; I took in information. Later I went to the person managing that "messenger of the complaint" and said I basically make no room for the complaint, given the expertise of the completed work, and for such a minor and brief project that would have been a disaster if I had not utilized the resource with the accent. In my head, meanwhile: Not every city in the country would have the same reaction to this type of speech, but it's a big world out there, and we have to live in it. That's the gist of where I left that and where it stayed.

A later experience involved not complaints but questions about what type of regional language skill would be found across the team handling phone support. In that particular situation, I made little room for the questions to grow into further requests or changes to the linguistic mix I had in the people I was employing. That is because I wasn't being paid to supply a particular flavor of language--or to shift gears and change the flavors I had. No where was that ever required. So no where did I make room for further exploration into the idea. I provided the staff with specific skills required to fulfill a need in the languages required, and they were all very understandable, but with a mixture of linguistic influences. There was a little more political feeling to that experience and it was also a longer project. But I didn't budge on any of the lingering comments that surfaced here and there.

Who else has something to say about this? I know that I have personally experienced a frustration at some point at not understanding somebody, but I also don't suffer from that problem too much, because I live in a place that has a lot of different kinds of people. I've also done some evolving as the waves keep coming to shore.

What do you do with people who haven't--and in a business context? My questions are not based on the topic of outsourcing work between countries with great distances between them. That's a whole 'nother topic all on its own. This is strictly about people living in the same society and the presence of accents within a same society--in the context of customer service.


#2   Posted: 10 Sep 2007 09:33

Hello there Ayaree...hope you are well. I am getting ready to retire from my company and move to Arizona on the 25th but will try to keep in touch on the board.

I can say to your question- yes and no. We deal with all types of languages as we have customers from all countries and nationalities. For the most part, I have no trouble understanding them but think they might not always understand I try to slow down and enunciate. We usually figure it out.

My husband on the other hand, at home, when he calls for technical support for his lap top or PC has a really tough time understanding the technician if they have a heavy accent. He gets really frustrated with the contact and it takes longer than it should. He has started to take his lap top to one of the "geeks" or to Circuit City where he can get help from someone in our area that is usually of the same 1st language- English. He does get very annoyed when he cannot understand someone and they him.

Think it is a good question and the world does need to deal with this as more and more customer service is not located in the origin country.

#3   Posted: 16 Sep 2007 13:45

Hi there, I think I find myself enunciating a lot more than I used to do. I think that comes with a lot of different accents living in one place, so that you have everybody doing their best to be understood in English--and then the native speakers of English wind up enunciating right along with them sometimes. (More than half the people living inside Toronto itself were born somewhere else!) I know that sometimes an accent from one of the Indian languages can be hard to understand to me, depending on the person. (I say "one" because I know there are lots of different cultures within the borders of India, from my very basic knowledge...). I think it's a hard R pronounced with the tip of the tongue that is making understanding difficult for people used to hearing the English of Walter Kronkite or Diane Sawyer--or even Christiane Amanpour. Not necessarily more difficult to understand than Scottish English when I think about it.

Anyway, I think there is more than one dimension to what I initiated as a topic, there's people whose first language is not English and they are off-shore, people whose first language is not English and they are in the country of the caller, and people whose first language is English in the same country as the caller and yet they have a regional accent that is not the "targeted" one--or French if you think in terms of Quebec French vs France French or "International French." And I know from experience what it is like to be perceived a certain way simply because of an accent in more than one language, so I am probably a little over-zealous on the topic. :)

Pati, I hope you're going to love your new place in AZ, surrounded by all the people who matter even more than your customers. I think it would be great for you to check in with us at this board, I would like it! I know one thing I will be curious to know is whether you will be able to resist an opportunity to work once you are there, perhaps in semi-retired mode, ha ha. Maybe you don't need to keep working at all, I could be wrong.

#4   Posted: 18 Sep 2007 12:50

Thanks Ayaree - I will keep in touch. I may not need to keep working but then agin I 'need' to keep working and doing something that gives me satisfaction.

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