Helping ESL Customers

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The help desk environment can be a tense one — customers often call in frantic, and almost all of them need (or want) to be helped immediately.

Help desk staff might need to exercise considerable patience and care, not only to diffuse a potentially explosive situation but to provide excellent customer service, as well as helpful solutions to technical issues. When customers aren’t native English speakers, even more difficulties can arise.

The Help Desk Institute (HDI) offers a module on cross-cultural communication in its certification training to help potential certification holders relate to non-native English speakers.

The first lesson: Keep all language simple — use root English and eliminate slang or humor.

“It could be as simple as understanding that when saying ‘I had a hard time last night,’ ‘hard’ will not translate well in some languages because ‘hard’ is a concept that implies something like, ‘This is a hard desk,’ not time,” said Rick Joslin, executive director of certification and training. “It’s having that awareness that while the U.S. is very social in using someone’s first name without knowing them, that’s not necessarily the case in another country, where it may be considered offensive — use the formal ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ or whatever is appropriate.”

It also helps to stay away from acronyms, abbreviations or anything that is difficult to translate or is unique to English.

Further, help desk professionals need to remember to speak slowly. Joslin said slowing down gives individuals who are mentally translating English the time and opportunity to break words apart and interpret them.

“When dealing with someone who speaks English as a secondary language, you also need to validate understanding,” he said. “It’s appropriate to ask if the person on the other line can repeat back or paraphrase the guidance that’s being given so that you can verify. If they’ve shared something with you, paraphrase that, using your words to describe it, to show understanding and also to verify that the customer you’re speaking with agrees that you understand their communication. It’s also good practice to do a follow-up e-mail, summarizing the issue and the resolution. What one may understand through verbal words can sometimes be misinterpreted, and it’s often easier for people to read it than it is for them to hear it.”

If help desk personnel often assist non-native English speakers or people from other cultures, Joslin said it’s appropriate to learn about the other language and/or culture.

For instance, if you’ve been assigned to support the Middle East, you will want to learn cultural norms unique to that area. This will improve your communication and understanding of the customer with whom you’re working. Despite your best efforts and preparation, though, a customer’s accent might be too strong for you to handle.

If so, Joslin said it’s perfectly acceptable to call for back up.

After all, it’s not about you or the person whom you’re talking to — it’s about quickly and efficiently finding a solution to the customer’s technical problem.

“Put the blame on yourself — ‘I am the one having difficulty understanding, so I’d like to bring someone in with a little more background or experience working with someone from India,’ or wherever,” Joslin said. “That may be another person on your staff; it may be a translation company. There are different options for bringing in translators. You may even ask the client if there’s someone in their operation who speaks English and may be able to assist.”

Above all, continue to use your customer service, empathy and listening skills to make sure you clearly understand and relate to customers who are non-native English speakers, Joslin said. Everything counts — word choice, the speed at which you talk and even your tone and volume can affect a call.

“People often make the mistake of not only slowing down, they increase their volume,” Joslin said. “Try to remember that the person’s not having difficulty hearing you — they’re having difficulty understanding you or vice versa. Raising your voice only adds to aggravation, so stay calm, stay polite and stay courteous, but slow the pace down, use simpler words and make sure you paraphrase.”

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Kellye Whitney

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