How to Handle Accented Callers

By Nancy Friedman, the Telephone Doctor

It’s more and more common for us to talk with people whose native language isn’t the same as our own. These callers often have accents that are difficult for us to understand. These accents can be both international and domestic. How many times have you talked with someone from a different region of the USA and you failed to understand him or her? Miscommunication is easy with anyone who’s not talking in a manner we are used to hearing. Today, with more businesses going global, it’s key to be ready to know how to deal with a callers who have accented speech.

Don’t forget, sometimes it is us that has the foreign accent to others. To those from another country, we are the ones that have the foreign accent! So these tips will go both ways, plus they’re effective both on the phone and in person. Taken from our video, How to Handle the Foreign Accent, here are the five key points to know to help you at your call center job (and in your personal life too) when working with someone who is difficult to understand, accent or not.

Don’t Pretend to Understand: It’s okay to gently explain you are having a little difficulty understanding them. Let’s face it, if you have an accent – you know it. So it’s not a surprise. One of the least effective things you could do is to pretend that you do understand, when in fact, you don’t. Some folks nod or say, “Okay,” just to move the conversation along. That’s not doing anyone any good. It’s perfectly acceptable to simply and gently say, “I apologize. I am having a little difficulty understanding you. If you could slow down, just a little bit, I’ll be able to get it all correct for you.” That’s the most important thing to the person with the accent, knowing you want to help and that you want to get it right. They’re aware you might be having difficulty. If you pretend you understand, it won’t help the situation at all. Your tone of voice is international and universal. So keep it at a light, slower pace, and yes, smiling is also universal. They’ll hear your smile in any language.

The phrase I mentioned above is most effective and a key phrase to learn. I know for a fact, it is accepted very warmly. I’ve had many a person from another country come up and thank me for sharing that technique with the audience. It apologizes, acknowledges, empathizes, and creates credibility. It shows you want to help.

Don’t Rush: Rushing threatens callers. Often there’s a tendency to want to really rush someone who speaks with an accent. That is not a good idea at all. Rushing threatens the best of us, let alone someone who is not able to express themselves in our style. Slow down, not to excess of course, but if you find yourself constantly saying “Uh huh,” over and over in rapid succession, you’re probably rushing the caller.

Don’t Shout: Persons with accents are not hard of hearing. We usually get a little laugh on this one. Many times we subconsciously speak louder, or repeat the same word over and over, thinking that will help. It doesn’t. People with accents normally hear very well. It’s insulting to shout at them. Keep that smile on your face. It’ll show that you have the patience to help and keep trying to let them know you are there to help. It might take time, but it will help.

Don’t Be Rude: No one really thinks they’re rude. But if you’ve ever said: “Hey, I can’t understand you” or even a short, terse, “huh?” – you’re considered rude. Again, go back to the first item and explain you’re having a little difficulty understanding. They’ll often repeat it for you. If the situation is hopeless and you simply aren’t getting anywhere, don’t be embarrassed or afraid to seek help. Perhaps another agent or a supervisor in your call center can better understand what the caller is saying. But remember, being shuffled from one person to another is frustrating to anyone, accent or not.

Do Keep a Job Aid Available: Most often, we hear that 80% of the calls are from a certain area with the same accent, be it all Hispanic, or all Asian, or all European. If your job has you working with a large percentage of individuals with one accent, keep a few simple phrases in that language near you. Short phrases that would let the caller know you’re trying. If you’re in an Hispanic environment, phrases like, “Un momento por favor” (One moment please) will help. Even if we mispronounce it, they’ll understand. Hopefully, there is someone in your area who is either fluent or well spoken in one particular language who can help you formulate an effective work aid.

Remember what we said earlier; your smile is universal. Use it early and often, no matter whom you are talking to!

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis Missouri. Nancy will be the keynote speaker at the 2004 ATSI Convention and is the author of four best selling books.

[From Connection MagazineMay 2004]

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