Multilingual journalist Kirsty Rigg shares with us some interesting tips on overcoming communication problems in a multilingual contact centre
Contact centre communication relies almost entirely on the spoken word, and when those words are misconstrued by colliding languages, it can quickly lead confusion and frustration.
Thankfully, there are certain ‘language tricks’ which can be taught in contact centre staff training, which vastly improve communication skills between the call agent and client. Not only does this make for successful business on the long run, it also creates more relaxed employees who are more likely to be enthusiastic about their job, and are more likely to become long-term, experienced staff.
Avoid Phrasal Verbs (after learning what they are)
Firstly, you are not expected to know what a phrasal verb is, but you 100% use them all the time, so don’t be put off by the technical speak.
Learn what they are, and be mindful when on the phone with a client of another native tongue.
Most non-native English speakers will have heard of phrasal verbs, but that’s because they get warned about them in school and told to master them for English exams. If you are a non-native speaker yourself, avoid them anyway, you may be talking to someone with a lower level of English and you could be confusing them.
Look at these examples: Put off – Put up with – Put through – Put down
All typical phrases that could easily be used in a contact centre conversation, right? But to a speaker of another language, especially a non-germanic language, the above can be a cryptic nightmare. Remember there is always an alternative that is much easier to understand, especially on the phone.
Now look at the same list again:
Phrasal Verb Example Alternative(s)
– Put off The meeting has been put off until next week Postpone (or discourage)
– Put up with I’m sorry you had to put up with that Tolerate
– Put through I was put through to the wrong department Transfer
– Put down I need to put down the phone To end a call (or to criticise someone)
Believe it or not, the ‘alternatives’ are much more widely understood by non-native speakers. The British Council has a great guide on learning about phrasal verbs, though in general, when you see a two-part verb like the above, especially one which has multiple meanings, you can rest assured it’s something to avoid.
Everyone smiles in the same language, and research strongly suggests that smiling on the phone can completely transform the mood of the other person on the other end.
If you are approaching a difficulty (linguistic or otherwise) with a smile, you’re approaching it with a friendliness and openness that they will both pick up on and appreciate. They will consequently more patient and understanding during a language communication problem.
It’s worth noting that an unhappy contact centre agent is also more likely to talk more quickly or become flustered, which will lead the way into further misunderstandings.
Those Three Words
Perhaps the most important point to be made in this article, but “Yes, I understand” can be either the best or the worst thing you ever say to a client in the contact centre.
One of the biggest communication problems with cross-language conversations is the very human tendency to say you understand something when it’s not necessarily the case.
Pride is expensive, and wrongly expressing clarity to save embarrassment could make or break a sale, or even a relationship between customer and business.
On the contrary, they are the three words that a client will long to hear, especially if they are anxious about a language barrier already, or they are looking for a solution to a problem. If you say those words, it’s important to mean them.
In technical terms, this is a “cleft sentence” – actually used by politicians who are trained to sound more confident and believable. The aim of the call centre agent is not the same as a politician, but there is nothing at all wrong with using emphasised language for reassurance, especially where there is a breakdown in language communication.
Normal sentence: “I am going to put you through to the right person who can help you”
Cleft sentence : “What I am going to do is put you through to the right person who can help you”
Normal sentence: “I’m going to cancel your order for you”
Cleft sentence: “What I’m going to do for you is cancel your order”
The psychology of this type of language has been proven to increase levels of empathy as well as helping the caller to feel they are in good, confident hands.
The BBC World Service has more information
Stay Away from Expressions
“Action speak louder than words ” or so they say – well, not when you’re on the phone in a busy contact centre. Your words are everything, and expressions like this can be very confusing to a foreign-speaking client.
Even the simpler expressions that we use every day such as “at the drop of a hat”, or “back to the drawing board”, or to “kill two birds with one stone” may lead your caller to believe you are a bird killer, like to draw on boards, or have actually dropped your hat.
Stick to simple, un-colourful language, express it slowly, and remember that the English language is actually nightmarishly illogical to those who were not brought up speaking it.
Gather Information Wisely
Knowledge is power – ask as many questions as you can at the beginning of the conversation and build context.
The more you know about your clients needs, the better you’ll be able to grasp the vocabulary surrounding it, and the clearer the conversation will ultimately be.
If you are unsure of the answer to a question, simply ask for clarification, or check understanding.
By saying “So what I understand is that you wish to…” – the caller will feel listened to, and the agent feels clued up and armed with the facts right away.
Use Noise Cancelling Headsets
Contact centres are busy and noisy places – noise cancelling headsets can make a world of difference to how well you are heard and understood. This is even more important when you are focusing on a voice with an unusual accent or low level of English.
Noise cancelling headsets such as the Jabra Biz 2400 are famously useful for these exact situations.
Kirsty Rigg is marketing Manager at PMC Telecom