Nearshore Americas

Why American English Fluency Matters in the Call Center

Have you ever called into a customer service line and known you were talking to someone 3,000 miles away? That distance is about more than physical separation; it can mean an inability to connect and to understand each other, and in customer experience that can be detrimental to customer satisfaction. For most contact center environments, the focus is traditionally on agents who can speak accent-neutral English. It makes sense; they want the agents representing their company to sound as “native” or “accent neutral” as possible. They want people representing their brand who sound like they could be their customer’s neighbor.

But while much emphasis has been placed on the need for accent-neutral English language skills, there is often little development beyond that. Language competence in the environment of the call center is about more than just the ability to speak the language in an accent that is appropriate for the customer context; real language fluency is imperative in ensuring that agents can connect with the customers they are talking to.

The Case for the Nearshore 

A lack of American language fluency can mean unsuccessful attempts to talk football and thus build rapport, and off-script conversations become awkward, adding to the frustration of the customer. A fluid communication with knowledge and understanding of local sports and slang could make all the difference.

Did you know that outside of Mexico, the US has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in the world? According to Instituto Cervantes, roughly 53 million people in the US speak Spanish (16%), and by 2050 it is estimated that total will be 138 million, making the US the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world!

Hearing Hispanic accents is now commonplace in the USA. People are more accustomed to a Spanish accent than ever before. On a customer service or sales interaction, what leads to a negative experience or missed opportunity, is the lack of fluency and affinity to a language or culture.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have chosen our sites based on the level of comfort the prospective agent base has in terms of American English, not just on the accent. Fluency in American English means agents can understand slang, easily interpret tone, and laugh at jokes as part of building rapport with the customer.

American English Fluency Matters

 El Salvador, Belize, and Jamaica have proven to be key sites for this kind of Americanized English language talent. About 65% of our agents in El Salvador grew up or have lived in the United States, and so understand the culture as well as the language. This type of American “cultural training” cannot be replicated in a classroom for people who have never stepped foot on USA soil.  In Belize, English is the first language, and in both Belize and Jamaica, tourism has also created a familiarity with the American culture and the idiosyncrasies of the language in that context.

While minimizing accent is essential, fluency is the real key. You can only script so much of the interaction.  When customers are already upset, and you couple this with an agent who cannot have a fluid back and forth natural conversation, the frustration increases automatically. Our agents must be able to go off-script, communicate empathy, build rapport, understand American slang, and laugh at jokes with our customers’ customers.

By prioritizing American English fluency beyond simple English language skills and accent, BPOs can offer better value to clients.  English fluency minimizes friction in customer interaction, enhances customer’s confidence, and helps create a positive lasting impression.

Dominic Leide

Dominic Leide is the President of The Office Gurus and has over 20 years of experience in the BPO / Call Center industry. Dominic has led The Office Gurus from a 50 seat captive call and contact center to a global provider of BPO solutions with 5 call centers in 4 different countries. Dominic is an active member of the Young President’s Organization and has taken part in call center panels on a variety of topics. In his free time his passions include boating with his family and coaching as many youth sports as possible!

2 comments

  • Dominic, you are so very much spot on. Yes, those on the phone should understand American slang, and even be a little conversant in sports. However, gaining those skills can be challenging. The thing that most damages conversations is a lack of cultural literal fluency. By this I mean using phrases, expressions and even verb tenses that, while correct on paper are simply not used during normal American conversations. A frequent help desk agent mistake is when I call and describe my problem only to then hear (as an example), “So you are having an issue with the charge of $10 at JoJo’s restaurant – is that correct?” There are 2 things irritating about that response. First is the obvious: you are adding no value when you make me repeat what I just told you in plain English! Let me trust that you know what I’m talking about by offering solutions NOW instead of making me explain again! The other issue is the use of the progressive tense (…you are having…). For reasons of courtesy or deference Indian speakers overuse progressive tense and conditional tense verb forms. For example, “I would be escalating your issue” instead of “I will escalate your issue.” The conditional tense implies that something may not happen – wonderful in negotiations, but frustrating to hear from a help desk agent.

  • Honduras holds the largest amount of bilingual schools in the region, and our familiarity and cultural affinity to US culture makes interactions a lot more natural and engaging with our Client’s customers.