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.
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.
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
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
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 www.telephonedoctor.com.