Commentary: Not Understanding Language is Bad for Corporate America

Jan 26, 2013

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever tried to contact a business and be patched to a phone operator for whom English is not their native language or has an accent so thick that communicating becomes difficult? If so, commentator Celia Brewer has your sympathy. She says what while she respects all languages and cultures, simple phone calls to American businesses should not be made laborious by the lack of understanding the language and that outsourcing call centers is bad for business.

Note: The views expressed in this commentary are soley those of the commentator and don't necessary reflect the views of WKMS.

I admit that I do not have the patience of Job, but who does? Life is hectic and often complicated. However, I am a very patient person with my daughter, a young special-needs adult who has blessed my life immeasurably. Because of her, I have also had to cultivate patience with the many agencies involved in her care—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, to name a few. I tell my friends that I use up all of my patience being a mom, but I am only half joking. This past fall, the rest of it was depleted by my students, sixty distracted college freshmen. Is it any wonder, then, that I have so little patience left for people on the other end of 1-800 phone calls? What is it with U.S. companies today? Thousands of Americans are out of work, native speakers of English. Why must we consumers suffer through transactions with people whose English is learned second-hand? Case in point: Santa brought my daughter a new cell phone, one of those no-contract, 1000-minutes-a-month phones. I‘ve used variations of these for years and know when you want to activate the phone, it’s best to bypass the customer service reps, “service” being loosely applied here. Every time I’ve had to deal with one of these CSRs, the language barrier has seemed almost impregnable.  These young people, though polite, are difficult to understand, and they don’t understand me very well either. Whenever I interrupt them to ask a question, they apparently cannot go off-script. They must finish the sentence they started, speaking slowly and carefully, as if auditioning for a part in a play—something out of Kafka, probably—taking more of my time and carving out greater chunks of my patience in the process. Imagine great slabs of ice sliding off Arctic glaciers. All because a Kentuckian is forced to converse with, say, a Filipino or a Bengali. I did not realize that my patience could plunge any farther until the last day of the old year. Medicare was moving my daughter to a new prescription drug plan, according to the official letter on blue paper.  To stay with what we had, I had to call an 800 number to “opt out” of the changeover. The person who answered was—surprise!—not a native speaker of English. After several minutes, with little progress, and being put on hold more than once, I asked to speak with her supervisor. More time on hold. Eventually another voice, this too someone not on intimate terms with English. I could not make her understand my mission either. By now, I had been on the phone for well over an hour. The supervisor put me on eternal hold, then transferred me to another division, more delays, and. . . . Finally—a voice from the wilderness. Someone who understood me—my diction and my mission. After we exchanged some information, I asked her, “Where were you born, Stephanie?” “New York City,” she said.  Thank you, god. Unfortunately, what Stephanie told me was that the first CSR should have transferred me to her right away because I had “the blue letter.” But the Latina had not understood me, and we had wasted over an hour! In the end I was able to finish my business successfully. But it took me nearly 2 and a half hours. Thus we come to the point. U.S. companies, pay attention here! Most Americans could be doing a much better job with the work currently outsourced to these non-native speakers. If you are looking only at the bottom line, you are overlooking a key factor in any business transaction—customer satisfaction—which usually leads to customer loyalty. I for one am not satisfied. And I know that I’m not alone. We are all running out of patience. Comprende

Celia Brewer is a writer in Mayfield. She learned Latin in high school, German in college, and wishes everyone a feliz ano nuevo