How to handle the foreign accentNancy Friedmanphone etiquette, telemarketing, diversity
It's more and more common to talk with people whose native
language isn't our own. These accents can be both international and
domestic. How many times have you talked with someone just from a
different region of the United States and not understood them?
Miscommunication is easy with anyone who's not speaking as we're
used to hearing. Today, with more and more business going global,
it's key to be ready to know how to deal with a foreign accent.
Don't forget, sometimes it's us who have the foreign accent to
others. To those from another country, we are the foreigners. So,
these tips will go both ways, and theyre effective on the phone and
Taken from our video of the same name, "How to Handle the
Foreign Accent," here are the five key tips to help you at your job
(and in your personal life) when working with someone who is
difficult to understand--accent or not.
1. Don't pretend to understand
It's okay to gently explain that 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 when not understanding someone is to pretend you do. 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 get it right. They're aware you might be having
difficulty. And if you nod "yes" or pretend you understand, it
won't help the situation at all. Your tone of voice is
international, universal. So, keep it at a light, slower pace--and
yes, smiling is also universal. They'll hear your smile in any
The aforementioned statement is most effective and a key phrase
to learn. I know it for a fact, and it is accepted very warmly.
I've had many a person from other countries come up and thank me
for sharing that technique with the audience. It apologizes,
acknowledges, empathizes and creates credibility. It shows you want
2. Don't rush
Rushing threatens callers. Often there is a tendency to want to
rush someone who speaks with an accent--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
3. Don't shout
They are not hard of hearing. Many times, we subconsciously speak
louder or repeat the same word, 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 that you are there to assist them. It might take some
time, but it will help.
4. Don't be rude
No one really thinks theyre rude. But if you've ever said, "Hey, I
can't understand you," or even a short, terse, "Huh?" you're
considered rude. Again, revert to tip number one and explain that
you're having a little difficulty understanding. They'll often
repeat themselves for you. If the situation is hopeless, and you're
simply getting nowhere, dont be embarrassed or afraid to call for
help. Perhaps another person can better understand what the
customer is saying. But remember, being shuffled from one person to
another is frustrating to anyone--accent or not.
5. Keep a job aid available
Most often, we hear that 80 percent of the calls are from a certain
area with the same accent, be it all Hispanic, Asian or European.
If your job has you working with a large percentage of one accent,
keep a few simple phrases in that language near you--short phrases
that would let the customer know you're trying. If you're in a
Hispanic environment, phrases like, "Un momento, por favor" (One
moment, please) will help. Even if we mispronounce it, theyll
understand. Hopefully, there is someone in your area who is either
fluent or well spoken in one particular language and can help you
formulate an effective work aid.
Finally, remember what we said earlieryour smile is universal.
Use it early and often, no matter whom you're talking to!
Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor Customer
Service Training in St. Louis and was a featured speaker at the
NAMB 2005 Annual Convention and Exposition in Minneapolis. For more
information, call (314) 291-1012 or visit www.telephonedoctor.com.