From Kansas to Kazakhstan: Communicating with Customer Service

From Kansas to Kazakhstan: Communicating with Customer Service

Your computer shuts down. The new TV’s picture is suddenly green. The phone you just upgraded suddenly won’t recognize your password. So what do you do? Call customer service, of course. But sometimes you understand about every third word.

{Disclaimer before we go any further: As in any profession, there are some excellent customer service reps on the other end of the line—whether in Kansas or Kazakhstan. This blog has more to do with your response than their ability to make themselves understood.]

Let’s break this down into two separate issues before we talk about your response.

First, native English speakers come from many different parts of the world. Brits, Aussies, Canadians, Indians, and Americans from the four corners of the country all have distinct accents. A native speaker can adapt more quickly to other versions of the language than a foreign speaker can.

Second, spoken English is not taught well in many parts of the globe.

In the phonology lab during my undergrad days, we painfully learned how to make all the sounds used in language around the world. It was fascinating, and once you understand how the articulators are used to create a sound, you can always hear it.

During my later language training in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), the phonologist spent a portion of each day illustrating, diagramming, and sometimes poking our jaws into place until each student could properly pronounce the Russian sounds.

But many language learners have none of the detailed training I was lucky to have.

So how do you respond when the customer service rep is unintelligible—at least, to you?

The first step toward understanding might be, “Hey—where do you sit? Where are you?” Follow that with a comment about it being warm here while it’s cold there or day here while it’s night there or simply that you’ve always wanted to visit the other country.

If you are dealing with a native English speaker with a strong accent, admit from the start that you sometimes have trouble understanding that particular accent. Make the problem yours, not hers.

Ask him to speak slower—people from some locations normally speak more rapidly—and to pause between sentences so you can process. Give your ear time to set to the accent before you give up and hang up!

If you’re dealing with someone whose English skills are not quite ready for prime time, remember that she will be having the same trouble understanding you. Mention up front that you may have trouble understanding. Speak slowly and enunciate, using subject-verb-predicate construction. No run-on sentences. No complicated clauses. No contractions—they have many different pronunciations. Stop the rep frequently and say, “I think I heard you say. . .” Don’t be afraid to ask for a phrase to be repeated. Remember that telephone speakers sometimes cut off the highest and lowest frequencies, so it might help to turn up the volume even if you think you’re hearing everything.

Don’t give up, and don’t lose your temper! (This is hard when the TV is flashing colors and the computer is dead.) If you simply cannot understand, apologize and politely ask to be transferred to someone else. You might also post a gentle note to the company telling about your experience. Accent reduction classes for foreign speakers would be a great company investment!



About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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