Shining up Your English for the Call Center

Jeepney or “jeep”

Suppose you live in the Philippines, which is now the call center capital of the world. A lot of sales calls are based here—selling town homes, condos, time shares, stocks and bonds. Customer support is done here. Wherever there are people, from Baguio to Cebu, a call center will be set up with 20,000-25,000 employees working.

You are a graduating from the University of the Philippines, and you have some computer skills. In addition to Tagalog and perhaps another Filipino language you have reasonably good English. You decide to look for a job in a call center, which pays better than anything else you can think of. The average monthly salaries are mid-level—18,000 to 20,000 pesos [$409-$455]—which is a good income here. If you can get into management, you can work up to 40,000-60,000 [$909-$1,364] plus a car and benefits.

You spend several days going to interviews and getting tested. For each day, you’ve got to catch a jeepney on campus (shown above) and transfer to another jeepney. To get to the call centers you have to get up early in the morning and spend the day, so you need money for transportation, food and drink, which might be 150-200 pesos [$3.40-$4.55]. This is hard for you to come up with, but your mother gives you the money. You do well, so you’re hired. Then you have to undergo training, which includes work on your English, since it’s not quite good enough for dealing with foreigners over the telephone. The American who is training your trainer to use the equipment is a friendly guy named Charlie.

Charlie’s story

The most interesting part of the work I’ve done is the hire screening, because that’s where you figure out who gets to train and what describes a person who’s trainable. Yes, the ability to offer alternatives is an important skill, but it’s a higher level skill for this industry. Because a lot of time when you’re talking about giving somebody an alternative you’re talking about, say, a travel account. “The flight to Topeka for tomorrow is full, but I could get you into Kansas City and connect you with another flight to Topeka.” That requires the ability to give reasonable alternatives that are based in some analysis of the problem. As much as you can give people formats and policies for making those decisions, you can’t teach somebody how to think. Many times I’ve said, “Sorry. I can’t train that.”

I haven’t gotten far into this, but if you think of empathy as being able to relate to other people’s wants, their needs, their feelings, I think sometimes that is a social attribute that’s missing. I notice that you could walk into a convenience store and say, “I’d like a hard pack of Marlboro Lights.” And they’ll say, “Sorry out of stock.” [Out of stock is the most frequently used English phrase in the Philippines.] When they could say, “We have soft pack.” Just to be absolutely ridiculous, you might walk into the next store and ask for Marlboro Lights and they’d say, “Well, we don’t have those, but you could consider buying some gum instead.”

I’m not a trainer. My field is business administration, not education. What I do is teach the trainer how to use the tools, and I’m concerned with only a small subset of what happens in the foundation training, which is basically do you speak well, can you think well, can you do this and that. This is different from the specific job training. It’s been my observation that most foundation trainees have a very good command of English. They have a very light accent and they speak grammatically correctly, possibly with more correctness than the average American. [The English spoken by educated Filipinos tends to be rather stiff, formal and peppered with old-fashioned word usage.]

The trainees often lack critical thinking skills, so their ability to apply English effectively is sometimes limited. Math, logic, reasoning, science are typical weaknesses. General critical thinking is extremely sparse. I’ve tried to look at why that is, and the only conclusion I can come to is that most education here, in both public and private schools, grades one through ten, is very memorization-based. In multiplication tables, they memorize each and every cell in the table. It’s like they don’t know why one times one equals one. They think back to where one times one intersects in that chart and they realize the answer is one. Five times five, they don’t know it’s twenty-five, but they think back to their chart and they realize it’s twenty-five. Foundation training is obviously not a comprehensive training of anything other than how to sound intelligent when you’re talking to call center customers.

The only training I’m involved with is on the voice and accent side, using different products for teaching voice and accent. The company I’m affiliated work uses products from Carnegie Mellon University, called Carnegie Speech, which is actually a recommended product for TOEIC [Test of English for International Communications] and TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] review. We have software products for testing and teaching spoken language for non-native speakers who already have a pretty good command of English. What we’re teaching is voice, accent, grammar, word stress, pacing, pausing, pitch, inflection, intonation. Things like that. But again, we’re not teaching somebody how to use language intelligently. We’re taking competent speakers and making them sound more neutral. So for example we teach reduction, which here means removing the pauses between words that a native speaker tends to run together, so that you sound fluent, as opposed to proper.

The products we use are interactive. The call centers buy the licenses. One license that’s good for one person for one year is a hundred dollars. That’s unlimited usage for one year. But it’s not sold on an individual basis. They’re looking for a couple of hundred people to buy it, and after that the prices start going down significantly per user. So our average order usually ends up being closer to $50 per person per year.

This is where Carnegie Speech really excels. All of the curriculum is 100% individualized and tailored for the actual participant. When the trainees begin, they take an assessment that shows where their biggest strengths and weaknesses are, and it configures a curriculum that attacks their biggest weaknesses first. Generally we see with people who have a pretty good command of English but have a poor accent, it’s only about four or five different skills that keep their accent from being neutral. And if those are diagnosed at the outset and treated first, we see that we have generally pretty darned good success in getting somebody to a much more neutral state in ten to twelve hours of study.

There’s word stress and intonation and then there’s also the thirty-eight different phonetic sounds. The acoustic software will show visually the frequencies of sounds spoken in standard American speech compared with the sounds spoken by the trainee. For example, our unstressed vowels are reduced. The second syllable in “doctor” is unstressed, so the vowel is an unstressed “uh.” It isn’t pronounced like “tore,” as in “I tore up the paper.” Using acoustic charts, the trainee gets visual feedback and can modify the vowel until it matches the standard.

The software will drill down into the different disciplines of grammar, which means it doesn’t just say, “You have a grammar problem.” It says, “You have a problem with these prepositions,” and it goes down into the exact subset. Because it does that, it can train a heck of a lot faster than any other tools available. It’s mimicking a one-on-one learning environment. So we find that with people who have a pretty good command of English their weakness just lies within some areas of grammar or accent and can be cleaned up pretty quickly. Now, speech is a muscle-memory exercise, the same as a golf swing is or shooting a basket, so use it or lose it. And what we find is that, while you might do ten or twelve hours over two or three days and really get a big benefit, you’ve got to keep doing refresher training, whether—maybe it’s one or two hours a week, but you’ve got to keep at it.

So we did a remedial program a few years ago at a call center where we had twenty people who were slated for dismissal because of the poor QA [quality assurance] scores with regard to speech. The people they were talking to on the phone were having a poor customer experience because they couldn’t understand them. In the call centers, QA is a big deal. You’ve heard the message, “Your call might be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Well, out of about a hundred calls they listen to, they’ll randomly sample them, looking for whether the employee was understandable, whether the customer was handled appropriately and given proper alternatives. There’s this big score card that they’re looking at.

Were you being helpful for the customer or were you just answering “yes, no, yes, no”? But if you’re flagged by QA enough times for any given thing, they’ll either put you out the door or put you into some type of remedial training. So we were working with twenty people—this was on a pilot basis—that were slated for dismissal for poor communication skills, and because of their improvement in speech all twenty people were able to keep their jobs. But when you get a program like that, we’re already pretty well cherry-picking because we know that we’re dealing with people that have already passed some types of screening, they’ve already been through some training, but they’ve had slippage in some skills. So it’s not like you’re starting from the very beginning, and you’re working with pretty good material.

Unfortunately, how an employee handles a difficult customer situation is trial by fire. I’ve listened to a few traumatizing phone calls. For instance, there was a woman who was taking her very first phone call ever, and she was taking it from a guy who wanted to dispute a bill. Almost anybody would be taken aback by the kind of abuse he was giving her—fuck this, fuck that, fuck you, fuck everyone. She panicked and said, “Sir, sir, sir, please stop fucking me.” Another guy was negotiating extremely hard on the phone, trying to negotiate a bill down. He was talking with a woman who didn’t have the authority to negotiate. What she finally said, was, “No, sir, I will not go down on you.”

One of the challenges we have is to try to teach people how to understand English idioms because without knowledge of some of the more common ones they’re lost.