Tips for Coaching Employees with Accents

Contact centres are known for measuring everything.  Why not accent?  Easy understanding of what the contact centre worker is saying, is key to contact centre success.

Accents can be attractive, they can be sexy (!), they can add interest and appeal which can be an asset to the contact centre (CC). But they can also be a huge challenge – 

  • they can be distracting if  the customer is so busy focussing on deciphering individual words that they miss the point of the message 
  • they can wear the customer out as a result of the effort required in trying to follow what is being said
  • they can be off-putting if the customer can’t face the thought of a long and fraught conversation with limited understanding on both sides
  • they can cause embarrassment if the customer wants to help the CC worker but doesn’t know how to do this without seeming to be correcting them, prompting them, finishing off their sentences or talking down to them.

These are Hard To Understand (HTU) accents.

ACTION POINTS to help HTU speakers
  1. Personal development:  Include Accent Coaching in personal development planning where appropriate. Our philosophy is that while we embrace diversity and love all the different accents heard in New Zealand, some customers experience difficulty with some accents, and we need to give them the best chance of receiving our message. Accent Coaching provides another skill set, like learning a different computer application or learning to drive a manual car as opposed to an automatic. There is no stigma, no disapproval of their accent – just a skill to acquire as part of normal ongoing professional development.  Nevertheless, it pays to raise the subject sensitively to ensure buy-in. 
  2. Accent Assessment: Get an accent assessment done for each HTU person, so they know what areas to concentrate on. 
  3. Audio Models: Have a Standard English speaker record the CC scripts, sales pitch, greeting or standard questions, and use this as a model for HTU colleagues. They can download the model on to their iPods or phones to listen to and practice.
  4. Self-recordings: Listening to oneself can be a key learning experience! HTU people can record themselves as they try imitating the Standard English model – they can use ‘Sound Recorder’ on their home computers, or the recorder on their phones. 
  5. Speech rate: slowing down is a very valuable strategy for everyone with a HTU accent. Combine a slower rate with appropriate pausing after key words
  6. Filler words:  Filler words used in other languages, such as ‘Ja, ja, ja’, can create listener expectations that the speaker will be hard to understand. These words are easy to change if colleagues help by pointing them out and making the speaker aware of them. Replace the foreign fillers with local words and phrases. 
  7. Word Stress: Encourage the HTU speaker to stress the CONTENT words (louder, slower, with a pause afterwards) and to de-stress the FUNCTION words (they should be nearly swallowed up). This will help improve the rhythm of their speech. It is amazing how much difference this makes to intelligibility.
  8. Vowel length: Standard English uses lots of long vowel sounds like EE, AR, OO, AY, IE, OR, ER, OW  and so on.  Often HTU speakers produce these vowel sounds in a short, sharp manner.  PHONE may end up sounding more like FON, and TIME like TUM. Ask the speaker to stretch out the words to help overcome this.
  9. W and V sounds: Some HTU people switch these sounds around, saying PASSVORD for PASSWORD and PROWIDE for PROVIDE. Help the HTU speaker by reminding them to ‘Kiss the Ws and Bite the Vs’. This prompts them to use two lips to make the W sound, and to place the top teeth on the bottom lip to make the V sound.
  10. Listening to Standard English: Many people who speak other languages, only listen to their mother-tongue at home. Suggest to HTU speakers that they listen regularly to Standard English on the radio and TV. Recommended TV programmes include Breakfast, News, Close-up, Mucking In, Radar’s Patch, Fair Go and NZ documentaries. ‘Outrageous Fortunes’ could be popular with some people; ‘Shortland Street’ often has non-Kiwi actors but is good for cultural understanding. They can also rent the DVD, ‘Second Hand Wedding’, to listen to some good Kiwi English.
  11. Motivation: Use the team environment to provide support and motivation. If the whole team is aware of someone learning accent skills, they can help by being non-judgmental and encouraging the speaker to try (motto: ‘Don’t be shy to try!’). Through reducing any embarrassment and making it like learning any other skill, they will create a good learning environment. They can provide good audio models, show the person how to say something the Kiwi way, highlight words for the Non-Standard English speaker to try, and congratulate them for using the accent features they have learned.
  12. Syllable Stress: Make a list of multi-syllable words that are commonly used in the CC and make a recording of them to highlight the standard syllable stress pattern needed for each one. Encourage the HTU speaker to practice by imitating the model. Examples of NON-STANDARD syllable stress include saying:
  • deveLOPment instead of deVELopment
  • inaDEQuate instead of inAdequate
  • oPPORtunities instead of opporTUNities
  • eCONomics instead of ecoNOMics
  • compeTItors instead of comPEtitors
  • comFORTable instead of COMfortable
  • vegeTAbles instead of VEGetables
  • PERcentage instead of perCENtage

AccentSolutionsLogo Article by Sue Smith, Accent Solutions

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