When your customer cannot understand your agent…

For your business to succeed, your customers must easily understand your agents and your agents need to easily understand your customers. We call this Understandability. When Understandability declines we all know what happens. This causes customers to be frustrated and leads to unnecessary escalations, customer satisfaction goes down, revenues can be negatively impacted, and it becomes a vicious circle.

In this mini-series, we’re going to examine the root causes of poor Understandability and finish up with a range of solutions that can be implemented. In today’s Part 1 of our series, we will discuss how Hiring Costs relate to Understandability.

 Think of a typical CX conversation between a non-native speaker agent and a native speaker customer. Our non-native speaker agents are all over the world with the highest concentrations in the Philippines, India, Mexico, Central and South America. Our native speakers are concentrated in North America. Listening in on one of these conversations you learn within thirty seconds if this is going to be a good conversation from an Understandability perspective. The North American customer knows within seconds whether what she/he is hearing from the agent, is Understandable. The customer is not a linguist or an English major, yet in seconds the customer knows if this is speech is understandable.

Well, if the average North American customer knows this so quickly, why is it so difficult to hire agents who you know will be understood? The answer stems from how advanced our brains are and the millions of synapses that fire when we listen to speech. The human brain can make this determination easily because it is the world’s most sophisticated decision-making system. Then why simply administer an “English Test”?

English Tests used in the call center industry often have ‘academic’ genes in their DNA. They are often modifications of the type of English tests used in schools and universities. More on this later. What about face-to-face interviews? Ah, you’ve asked the key question affecting your hiring costs! Face-to-face interviews (or their virtual counterparts) can be a solid measure of Understandability, but they have one major drawback in the call center industry…

 We know that these face-to-face interviews are costly because they are time-consuming. You are trying to qualify 10’s or 100’s or even thousands of agents per year – this will drive your interview hours higher and in turn your hiring costs. Then if you were willing to incur higher hiring costs, you should be able to ensure that you only hire agents with good Understandability. This, however, is not the case, and the reason is something you may not already be aware of…

 This reason is known as imprinting, let’s unpack it. Your first language is called your L1. Your second language, your L2. For most offshore agents, their L2 is English. When we learn an L2, our brain already has a framework and solid understanding of our L1. This framework is imprinted on us. We cannot remove it. For that reason, it becomes a lens through which we learn all our subsequent languages.

The outcome of this is what happens when a non-native speaker interviews another non-native speaker when both share the same L1. As an example, a Filipino hiring manager interviewing a Filipino prospective agent. They share their L1, Tagalog. The manager listens to the prospect’s English and because of imprinting, the agent’s English is more understandable to the manager, than it will be to the North American customer. The manager and the prospective agent speak English ‘the same way’ as each other, but not the same way as the North American customer.

I know what you’re thinking… Then if we have native speaker managers do the interviewing we won’t ‘over-rate’ our prospective agent’s understandability. You are absolutely correct. If you could find a way to have native speakers do your interviews, you would be in a much better position to select the best-qualified agents. Clearly, this will increase your hiring costs. So, what is a BPO or company-owned contact center to do?

We’ll get to solutions in our third installment to this series, we still have some more groundwork to lay. Stay tuned!