Oct 20, 2010

[Call Centers] Accent Reduction / Elimination / Neutralization / Installation / Watermelon

Flickr: WAVA Limited - DSCF1830
by WAVA Limited via Flickr.

When the call centers first made landfall in the country, the initial training that new agents had to go through was pretty intense, at least by reputation. Regardless of your college degree or years and years of English education, you had to go through a 1-2 week course on "American Accent" with some culture and geography mixed in to boot. It certainly set the tone for the industry and with the boom of the BPO industry in the past 5-10 years (depending on when you start counting), the initial training has sort of been dragged along with it.

There are so many terms now for those first 1-2 weeks of your employment in a call center that it's hard to keep track. American Accent and Culture. Accent Training. Core Skills Training. Foundation Training. Pre-Process Training. Accent Reduction Training. Accent Enhancement Training. Accent Installation Training. The list goes on and on and on.

So I thought that it might be fun to discuss this little quirk of the call center industry in a bit more detail and it's progress over the years. I suppose it's a fitting first entry in what may become a series of entries about my experiences in the call center world over the course of the past seven years. If anything, my goal remains to be that of better informing you call center wannabes what the industry is all about and set the record straight in terms of some of the scarier rumors.

A call center job is still a job and that means you can in fact make a full career of it. A lot of folks forget this and thus they end up bombing out of the company and eventually spreading even more of the false rumors about the industry. Irony right there.

An Indian call centerImage via WikipediaI hope I don't need to go into too much detail about the WHY behind the need for communications training on the front end, but I'll dabble a bit anyway. As you should know by now, call centers typically support companies based in other countries. These countries naturally have certain expectations about what kind of support they get over the phone along with their own misgivings about decent jobs being sent to other countries. As for us, well, we're still technically an ESL country - English as a Second Language. All you need to do to confirm this is talk to any local call center agent in English at length and pretend not to understand Filipino or something. We speak English to some degree, but it's heavily colored by a lot of local flavor, if you get my drift.

Thus comes Training As A Magic Pill, as training professionals often curse. Given it's next to impossible for a call center to grow by solely hiring people who already speak English sufficiently well, some executive out there came up with the idea of training agents for 1-2 weeks, thus magically eliminating any problems they might have with communication.

Not the terms that claim to remove accents entirely or replace them with a completely different accent are totally misleading. Plus, I'd like to think that the industry has matured enough to accept that accent won't go away with a measly 1-2 weeks of classroom training. Heck, Henry Higgins had more time with Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion / My Fair Lady, and that's the work of fantasy!
So that's a big reminder to all of you kiddies - YOU WILL NOT MAGICALLY DEVELOP AN AMERICAN ACCENT! It's just not possible. And please stop trying to put on a fake accent - it's horribly annoying and it actually makes you harder to understand. Plus to the ear that has been naturally conditioned to recognize true accents local to their country, you end up sticking out like a sore thumb...with sequins.

Communication, if you remember your high school English, is a two-way process. The goal is to be able to efficiently exchange ideas despite whatever cultural and language barriers exist between the two communicators. Thus the goal of foundation training should be to to equip new agents with the necessary knowledge and skills to ensure the smooth flow of communication with the customer. This means two things - (1) being able to speak in a manner that is understandable to the customer and (2) being able to understand the customers themselves despite any accents they might have as well. If your trainer ever told you otherwise or promised that you'd come out of training sounding like a member of the British Royal Family, then you definitely get to punch him in the face for me. Seriously.

Thus of all the terms, I can more or less accent Accent Neutralization. I mean this in the sense that at least the training is able to help you ensure that you speak in a manner where you accent won't impair your speech. And don't say you don't have one since EVERYONE has some sort of an accent - it's a mark of your upbringing after all and there's nothing wrong with that. Thus you can never eliminate an accent - you can only temper and shape it such that it's not so obvious or not so much in the way of things.

With this more moderate goal, can call center trainers actually achieve this goal? Probably not, but they have to try. It's training like this (which is done at the expense of the vendor) that makes the foreign clients feel a little better about sending the work offshore (relative to them). Thus every contract a BPO company enters to with foreign companies will have something like this in play, if only for appearances.

This is not to say that core skills training is without merit. The good call center trainer (or training manager in terms of content development) knows what the best things to teach are and focus their efforts there. This is why you get never ending lessons in concepts like Active Listening, Empathy and the importance of thinking before you speak. There are just certain fundamental skills that one can't live without and thus they do matter in the long term, whether you work in a call center or not.

As for the geography stuff, well, let's just say it saves you a lot of embarrassment in the long run too. I mean come on, wouldn't you laugh if some tourist approached you asking for the best way to drive to Boracay from Manila?

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