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Say What? The Impact of An Agent’s Accent on the Customer Experience

“I’m sorry, but did you just say I need to break a sneaky chair over the sofa?” This may or may not have been a question that I actually believed an agent said to me recently.  It was probably quite silly of me to ask, because we were discussing shipment options, but fortunately, the agent found the humor in it.

I’m sure it’s a situation that happens quite often today, with so many global companies using offshore agents in their call centers. And if you are like me, all it takes is an unfamiliar sounding accent, perhaps speaking a bit too low or too fast and suddenly you’re ready to start whirling chairs across the living room. While some of us may just simply be following (what we thought were) directions, others may be doing it out of frustration.

If your company employs offshore agents, when was the last time you checked in with your customers to see if they felt satisfied with their most recent engagement?

Earlier this year, Zendesk published a concise infographic based on combined data from various experiments and research from sources including Psychologytoday.com, the University of Chicago, the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the CFI Group. Zendesk has been kind enough to share this infographic with us so that we may take an objective look at how these results may apply to our own call center agents.

(Click here to view the original infographic)

The Sound of Customer Satisfaction

Despite the efforts to implement engagement technology, like IVR (interactive voice response) or chat, into the call center, a live agent is still the heart and soul of the call center.  The sound of a voice on the phone with you can be reassuring, particularly if you are working to resolve a difficult issue. The infographic reports that 81% of consumers surveyed spoke with a live person during their call. A close 72% interacted with both an IVR and a live agent, while 59% stuck it out with their robo-voiced companion.

But how many of the 81% who spoke with a live person experienced a successful call? The answer could depend on whether or not the call center itself was located in the U.S. An offshore call center may be financially beneficial to a company, but if their customers feel that they cannot clearly understand, or connect, with an agent, their overall satisfaction may falter. This simple fact could result in being detrimental to the success of the company in the long run.

How much does accent really matter?

This portion of Zendesk’s infographic depicts research from a 2010 survey by the CFI Group that pits call centers inside the U.S. against those outside of the U.S.  The Contact Center Satisfaction index was rated on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the most satisfied.  Their results showed about a 20% difference in customer satisfaction, favoring those within the U.S. The infographic also states that according to reports from the CFI Group, “Callers have a difficult time understanding offshore agents, which leads to an ineffective and inefficient process.”

The research also includes data on customer satisfaction in terms of effectiveness and general customer service practices, including how many people the caller eventually spoke to before the issue was resolved, if the issue was resolved at all, probability of first call resolution, ease of understanding, courtesy, effectiveness, etc.

In every case, the call centers inside the U.S. came out on top.

Of course, there are also multiple variables to consider. What about a call center that is located inside the U.S., but employs agents originally from another country? Or what if your call center outsources an agent that can speak English clearly, but has a strong tendency to mumble?

Accent? What accent?

The accent issue is not just a global problem.  The language barrier also occurs on a smaller scale within the same country. For example, in the U.S., there are numerous regional dialects and accents, each with their own special idioms and pronunciations.  Believe it or not, you have an accent. Not anything your next-door neighbor might notice, but it’s there.  And if you happened to hear an agent who lived across the country on the other end of the phone, you probably wouldn’t get as frustrated as you might speaking with someone across the ocean. (But you might still find yourself asking him or her to repeat that phrase just one more time).

Trust is another important, possibly overlooked, factor in a making a successful customer experience. Trust plays a significant role into the connection made between the customer and the agent.

Does accent affect trust?

The data in this section of the infographic is based on an experiment by the University of Chicago, focuses on trust and agent credibility.  The experiment sought to gauge customer’s opinions of how true a statement sounded based upon the accent of the speaker.  Participants listened to statements from native speakers, speakers with a mild foreign accent and those with a heavy foreign accent. The results show that customers were more likely to believe the speakers that they could clearly understand as opposed to those they could not.  It all comes back to that all-important connection between agent and customer.

Offshore agents are certainly not a passing fad and with these statistics in mind, it seems like there is much to be improved on as far as enhancing the customer experience.

How many of you have received feedback on your offshore agents’ performance that resembled what we have discussed here? What solutions have you come up with to train your agents to avoid issues with speech?

Christina Hammarberg is the former associate editor at ICMI.