Beyond Words - Language Blog

A Call-Center Story

Conga lines, beauty pageants, happy hands, and great snack machines may not be among the first things that come to your mind when you think of call-centers, but they are for me. My work with ALTA Language Services has provided me with opportunities to visit call centers all around the world to train employees in accent reduction. Most of the call centers I’ve worked with are located in English-speaking countries such as India and Trinidad, but some are located in Mexican cities bordering the US where there is a heavy American influence.

Most of the call center employees I’ve worked with already speak English well, and have some understanding of American culture, but many of them require training to modify their accents in order to be better understood by American-English speakers over the phone. Each call center usually receives calls from a variety of clients, from credit card companies to health care agencies. There are even some call center employees who will work in more than one section requiring them to become proficient speaking English in a wide variety of areas.

You’ve probably spoken with people who work in Call Centers located in distant countries and not even known it. From my experience, I can tell you that call center agents have a difficult job. They are faced with the task of taking call after call from people reporting mistakes on their bills, needing help with a connection, or requesting information about their health care. In addition to understanding the complicated details of credit card bills, cable technology, or health care services, call center agents also need to read without sounding like they’re reading and speak clearly in English, which is usually their second or third language. It makes sense that customers can feel frustrated talking to people who are difficult to understand because of a heavy accent. This often leads to unpleasant calls, unsatisfied customers and unhappy calling agents. This is where ALTA comes in to help with various language services for offshore call centers.

Although each call-center is different, they all have an admirable sense of unity and fun, reinforced by motivational activities. I’ve seen some really fun and motivational contests and games, and have even incorporated some of them into the accent reduction training programs. One call center I worked with taught me “happy hands.” Since they have to be relatively quiet, they created this silent applause where they all raise their arms and wiggle their fingers. They use happy hands when they have a successful call, make a sale or reach a quota.

During training in another center, we held a mock American beauty contest so they could learn how to pronounce the name of each state. Each lady entered the room stating, “Hi my name is__________and I am Miss_________”; filling in the blanks with their most challenging American name and state.

Changing an accent is not easy. However, every call center I have worked with has welcomed this challenge and has had a great amount of success. They worked hard to be able to speak more clearly to their mostly American clients. ALTA’s Accent Reduction program has been most successful when combined with these employees’ high level of motivation and great attitudes. Now I just have to work on introducing happy hands and conga lines to the ALTA offices back in the States!