General Etiquette > All In A Day's Work

Language Barrier on the Phone

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Nebulous:
Thanks for all the advice!

A little more background: She was referencing documents she said she mailed to us sent with signature required. She said that they were signed for by someone in Fruit Department. It is the subject of these documents that I was having trouble understanding. So while she had a legitimate reason to be calling Tree Agency, I think (but was not 100% certain) she was calling Fruit Department in error. Tree Agency has a central mail room where most of the mail is sorted and then distributed. I handled the distribution of our mail within Fruit Department so I know we didn't receive the documents. My best guess is that she mailed them to the attention of another department that she was confusing with Fruit Department.

I didn't really want to take a message because my brain was literally not computing what she was saying. It wasn't just one word I was having trouble with, it was a whole phrase/sentence. I couldn't even repeat it back, let alone write it down or Google it. I also didn't want to look incompetent by passing along a poorly informed message for one of my coworkers to deal with when fielding calls was my responsibility :-[. Years later I'm still waiting for that Ah Ha! moment of finally realizing what she needed, but no luck yet.

In hindsight, I think my best course of action would have been to offer to take down her information (as much as I could understand), tell her I was going to "research" the issue and offer to have someone call her back. Then I could talk it over with a coworker and maybe have them call to see if they could understand what she needed. But then again, we may still have run into the same problem if my coworker couldn't understand her, either.

heathert:
If you knew what language she spoke, the only other thing I might suggest is have the interpreter do a three way call and call her back.  I used to work in an insurance call center and had the same thing happen.  I don't understand why.it is offensive to say you need help.to understand them.

BeagleMommy:
I usually use something like "Let me repeat back to you what you're asking so I'm sure I'm understanding you correctly.  You are asking about an envelope mailed to Fruit Department.  Is that correct?"

The other option would have been to take down just her name and phone number and have someone else call her back after you explain that you were having difficulty understanding what she needed.  Since you were a relatively new employee it shouldn't have reflected badly on you to ask for help.

Venus193:
I feel your pain.  Many years ago at the beginning of my career we had a client with an accent who called my boss with a list of designer names to be featured in that week's sale ads.  He wrote down what he could understand , but was too embarrassed to ask him to spell any of them.  He may also have been apprehensive as to whether he'd be able to understand him spelling things out.  He handed the list to me and asked me to call the man's secretary or his partner's secretary for this information.  I reviewed the list and discovered that while I could figure out most of them there were two or three I couldn't

However, when I was connected to the office I got the foreign-born client himself.  I took a breath and told him I was trying to confirm the spelling of the designer names.  At the fourth name -- I spelled out what my boss had written -- he said "Oh, my God, is my accent that heavy?  I'll have my secretary take care of this from now on."  Then he called her over to finish this issue.

Despite growing up around foreign accents there are times when I have this problem, too.

Winterlight:
I just handled a call like this- the caller had a very heavy accent, background noise, talked way too fast and wanted to argue with me. I transferred it to my boss, who decided after 5 minutes of circular debate that this wasn't going anywhere.

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