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New Jersey industry appointments update - 11/29/2006

Nov 28, 2006

The Telephone Doctor: How to handle the foreign accentNancy Friedmantelephone, courtesy, customer service 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 him? Miscommunication is easy with anyone who's not talking as we're used to hearing. Today, with more and more businesses going global, it's key to be ready to know how to deal with a foreign accent. Don't forget - sometimes, we are the ones with the foreign accents in the eyes of others. Here are the five key points to know to help you at your job (and in your personal life, too) when working with someone who is difficult to understand - accent or not. These tips will go both ways, and they're effective both on the phone and in person. Don't pretend to understand It's OK to gently explain that you are having a little difficulty understanding a customer. Let's face it; if you have an accent, you know it. So it's not a surprise. One of the least effective things one could do when not understanding someone is to pretend. Some folks nod or say "OK" just to move the conversation along. That's not doing anyone any good. It's perfectly OK 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 that you want to help and get it right. He's aware that you might be having difficulty. And if you nod or pretend to 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. The customer will hear your smile in any language. The phrase that I mentioned above is most effective and a key phrase to learn. I know for a fact that 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 that 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's not a good idea at all. Rushing threatens the best of us, let alone someone who is not able to express himself in his own 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 customer. Don't shout They 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 again thinking that it will help. It won'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 help. It might take time, but it will make a difference. Don't be rude No one really thinks he's rude. But if you've ever given a short, terse "huh?" or said, "Hey, I can't understand you, youre considered rude. Again, go back to what you learned from the first tip and explain that youre having a little difficulty understanding. The customer will often repeat it for you. If the situation is hopeless and you simply arent getting anywhere, dont be embarrassed or afraid to call for help. Perhaps another person can better understand what the customer is saying. But rememberbeing shuffled from one person to another is frustrating to anyoneaccent or not. Do keep a job aid available Most often, we hear that 80 percent of accented calls originate from a single area. If your job has you working with a large percentage of people who speak with a certain accent, keep a few simple phrases in the callers' native language near youshort phrases that would let the customer know that you're trying. If you work with a large volume of Hispanic callers, for example, 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. And remember what we said earlier. Your 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. For more information, call (314) 291-1012 or visit
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