Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Speak clearly, please

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's question comes courtesy of a friend, and it concerns phone etiquette. Read on:
 I have a hard time understanding accents over the phone, to the point that I sometimes cannot even follow the conversation with customer service representatives. Usually, I claim that there is a bad phone connection, apologize, and ask if they could speak slower and louder for me. Some times, this works just fine--they are equally apologetic, speak slower, and we have a conversation. Other times, this just seems to annoy the phone rep who refuses to talk any slower and, instead, just starts yelling into my ear. If they are in a particularly bad mood, I get snapped at if I ask a second time to repeat themselves. Once, I was hung up on. At this point, I want to ask to be transferred to someone else in hopes I can understand them, but, as I have just claimed it was a poor phone, I don't know how to now say, "I cannot understand your Southern-belle slang coming at me at a hundred miles an hour, so please send me to someone who can speak the King's English. Oh, and your manager, so I can tell him/her that you need some basic customer service skills."
 This is just one of the many reasons why I hate telephones. E-mail or instant message is so much better, as long as you're dealing with someone with good writing skills. However, oftentimes we're forced to call in for tech support or other customer service, and with call centers all over the country and the world, you never know what you're going to get (the last customer service person I dealt with had the sweetest Minnesota accent, but it's rare to be that lucky).

My friend, you are starting out with the right idea, blaming the phone rather than the person's accent. My suggestion would be to shift the blame even further, to yourself. Say simply "I'm sorry, sometimes I have a really hard time understanding people over the phone. Could you speak more slowly?" Retain the apologetic tone that you've been using so far. Hopefully if you make it seem like you have a hearing problem (even if the "problem" is that the agent is talking at a mile a minute and there's all sorts of office background noise coming through the connection) and emphasize that you need them to talk more slowly, they won't resort to shouting.

If you still can't understand them, say something like "I'm so sorry, I still can't understand you. Your voice just isn't coming through well. Could you possibly transfer to someone else?" Hopefully they will understand that some people just can't hear some voices -- my husband has a voice like that, which tends to lead to a lot of mis-heard orders at restaurants. Good thing he's not a picky eater.

But what about when the agent gets snippy with you? Absolutely ask to be transferred to the manager right away! Summon your best icy politeness and say "I still can't understand you. Please transfer me to your supervisor." Then when you get the supervisor, calmly explain what happened and request to be helped by someone else.

In the case of being hung up on (really? I know a lot of people who have worked in call centers and you're generally only allowed to hang up when the customer gets truly belligerent, as in cursing and making threats), you should call back and ask immediately to be transferred to a supervisor. Then provide the name of the employee who hung up on you! Hopefully your call will have been monitored for quality assurance (or whatever they call it) and they will have proof of how poorly you were treated.

The important thing is to stick to just the facts. While it would be very satisfying to say that you think the agent needs some "basic customer service skills" after being yelled at, you look so much better when you are the one calmly saying "All I did was ask her to repeat the product number I needed to order" and she's the one who hung up on you.

I hope this helps, and I hope that you don't encounter too many irrationally irritable customer service representatives any time soon!

Do you have a question that you'd like to see answered in this blog? E-mail me at and you could be one of my next letters!

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