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Author Topic: Language Barrier on the Phone  (Read 10840 times)

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Language Barrier on the Phone
« on: January 08, 2013, 11:48:02 PM »
Hi - I'm a long-time lurker who's had a lot of fun and gained a lot of insight from reading all your wonderful posts so I decided to join in. :)  This happened a while ago, but I was wondering if I could have handled it better just in case I ever have any similar experiences in the future.

I had a job for a department of a public agency with a slightly confusing name.  By way of example, I'll call it the Fruit Services Department of Tree Agency.  The confusing part is that we only provided fruit services for Tree Agency, not anyone else.   About half the phone calls we received were from outside agencies or members of the public looking for fruit services. I did my best to refer these callers to other resources that could provide them with the fruit services they were requesting.

One day, only a couple of months after starting to work at this particular job, I received a phone call from a lady with a very thick accent.  I tried my best to assist her, and did understand a lot of what she was saying. But she kept referring to something, which was the main point of her phone call, that I just didn't understand.  Perhaps she was using terminology that was familiar to her but not me (possibly due to language, cultural or geographic differences), fruit-related jargon I hadn't yet been introduced to, or maybe it was a simple misunderstanding due to the accent/pronunciation.

After about 15 minutes I still did not understand what she needed. I kept saying I wasn't understanding the terms she was using and she just repeated the same information. In other words, the definition of insanity – repeating the same thing expecting different results.  Sensing growing frustration on both our parts, I suggested that perhaps an interpreter may be able to assist because I was having trouble understanding. She got angry (up until this she wasn't exactly pleasant, but she was polite) and yelled at me, “I speak English. I don't know what language you speak, but I speak English!” And then she hung up on me.

I still feel bad that I couldn't help her. Perhaps suggesting an interpreter was the wrong move, but I wasn't sure how else to help. At the time I was the only one in the office available to take the call. I suppose I could have taken a message but I don't know what I would have written down.

Any suggestions on what I should/could have done differently?


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2013, 12:37:03 AM »
You could have tried, "I'm so sorry, but I am relatively new to this job.  Could you call back at a later time and I can have my colleague try to help you?"  That puts the "problem" onto you so that she doesn't get upset - people can get really touchy about accents & language, ends the call so you aren't beating your head against a wall, and it also gives her a chance at finding help.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2013, 01:05:06 AM »
Was she from Tree Agency or one of the members of the public calling you by mistake?

If she was from the public and you could tell she was calling your number by mistake, even if you weren't 100% sure what she did want, I don't think you'd be out of line to say something like:  "I'm so sorry for the confusion, but this is the Fruit Services Department of Tree Agency.  We only provide guidance to the Tree Agency.  If you're not calling with Tree Agency, you'll need to look elsewhere for help."

In other words, it's nice of you to try to help the people who call your agency by mistake, but if you can't understand someone, simply saying politely that your agency only does XYZ (which she knows she doesn't need) should suffice.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2013, 01:10:58 AM by kglory »


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2013, 07:46:34 AM »
Not knowing exact terminology, could you not have googled it and maybe found your answer that way in what she might have been looking for?


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2013, 08:14:56 AM »
"I am sorry, I think this line is having an issue. You are saying "blanaoan" but I just can't make that out.  Could you spell it for me?"
"Oh, Banana!  To get banana fruit services, you need to call the Tropical Fruit Agency.  Their number is....."


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2013, 10:18:46 PM »
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.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #6 on: January 10, 2013, 08:07:06 AM »
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 is offensive to say you need understand them.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #7 on: January 10, 2013, 08:19:42 AM »
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.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #8 on: January 10, 2013, 08:47:55 AM »
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.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #9 on: January 10, 2013, 10:16:30 AM »
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.
If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
Five things observe with care,
To whom you speak,
Of whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.
Caroline Lake Ingalls


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #10 on: January 10, 2013, 11:03:36 AM »
This reminds me of an experience I had many years ago.  I was living in San Antonio, which has a large Hispanic population.  I'd lived in south Texas most of my life, And while i didn't speak Spanish, i was used to people with heavy accents, common surnames, etc.

One Christmas season i was volunteering for an organization that provided toys for needy kids.  My job was to take applications on the phone from parents signing their kids up for the program.  One woman had both an unusual surname and a heavy accent, so i had to ask her to spell it for me.  We got through the rest of the call just fine.  However, i got three more calls that afternoon from her neighbors (they all lived in the same housing projects and had apt numbers close together), and she must have told them about the silly woman who couldn't spell, because they all very carefully spelled their names for me right away...'Mrs Garza...that's G A R Z A'.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #11 on: January 11, 2013, 10:44:12 AM »
We have many callers to this office with accents. The calls are routinely transferred to me as most people here cannot understand English spoken with an accent.  I am fairly proficient at understanding them, but every once in a while, I simply cannot make heads nor tails. I have found that if I ask them to slow down or to spell the word in question, all is well.

 On one occasion, I had a woman whose accent was so thick, I honestly thought she was not speaking English. I work with enough Koreans to think she was speaking Korean to me. I said, "I'm very sorry, but I don't speak Korean. Do you speak English?"  She sighed loudly and started speaking slowly and was totally understandable. I realized that she'd been speaking English before but so rapidly that she had little control over her accent and when she  slowed down, her English was fine.

Occasionally the person sighs or makes a comment or gets angry, but I don't let it bother me. I figure that if I moved to Korea and didn't speak the best Korean, I'd have to expect people to have a hard time understanding me and that's my problem, not theirs.
« Last Edit: January 16, 2013, 11:22:37 AM by Cami »


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #12 on: January 11, 2013, 12:06:44 PM »
The combination of a thick accent, too-fast speech, bad connection, and background noise is mind-blowingly difficult for me to deal with.

What I do is ask the person to spell it. Even if I feel incredibly stupid asking them to spell an entire sentence. I sometimes even have to spell it back to them.

Caller: I need information on enshoalalskngiekalaskg alksdifgnh ellaksgfjjklsgkldaendfk
Me: I'm sorry, I'm having trouble understanding you. Can you please spell out your request for me?
Caller: I need information on [spells out] periturbo elliptical anhydrogenous alpacian hentoramuses
(In other words, something I would never in a million years been able to figure out otherwise)
Me: So that was P like Paul, E like Eggplant, I like Igloo...

Barring that, I'll take down their name and phone number, then ask a coworker for help. "Sally, I had a caller today with a request that I just couldn't understand. Could you call and see if you can help her?" There's no shame in that.
"From a procrastination standpoint, today has been wildly successful."


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #13 on: January 11, 2013, 12:42:10 PM »
I would also apologize that you do not recognize that word and would she please spell it for you so you could try to look it up.  And then confirm each letter after she says it with the "e? As in Edward?" process.


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Re: Language Barrier on the Phone
« Reply #14 on: January 14, 2013, 06:58:39 AM »
Some customers that call into my work place to get support do have various accents.  Some are easier to understand, others not - it depends on their proficiency and confidence in speaking a 2nd language.  The ones that are either speaking really fast and/or have a thick accent - We simply ask them to slow down if speaking fast in a polite manner.  Sometimes things have to be spelled out to ensure accuracy.  As a last ditch option, some customers put someone on the phone that is easier to understand.