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Accents a concern for customer service – Research

1 June 20150 comments

Accents a concern for customer service – ResearchAny accent other than ‘Aussie’ causes irrational concerns of incompetence for customers, according to a new study.

The research titled “The effect of service employees’ accent on customer reactions”, carried out by marketing and business experts at the University of Adelaide, found that a customer’s experience can be negatively impacted by a service employee with an unfamiliar accent.

It showed that if the service employee is incompetent or the customer is already in a negative state, that hearing an accent can exacerbate the situation.

This unfair bias is based on customers placing a lack of credibility onto the employee, believing their issue will not be resolved, the researchers said.

Dr Sally Rao Hill, from the University of Adelaide, conducted the first research of its kind into foreign accents and customer service.

As many Australian companies are moving their customer service departments offshore to cut down on costs, the significance of the study becomes more prominent.

Dr Rao Hill believes it is important companies are aware of the impact an accent can make on customer experiences.

“Service managers need to be aware that accents will exacerbate perception of already difficult service situations,” Dr Rao Hill said.

While the research revealed that hearing a service employee with a foreign accent didn’t affect a customer’s emotions or judgement of the employee’s credibility, it was when complications arose that that mindset changed.

“When a customer is confronted with an incompetent service employee with a foreign accent, negative emotions like fear and sadness are increased, while when the service employee has an Australian accent, there is no significant effect on the customer’s emotions.”

“This suggests that customers may be fearful of not having the problem resolved when they encounter a service employee with a foreign accent,” she said.

For newly arrived migrants to Australia that are proficient in English, working in jobs like call centres can be the quickest and most viable option to start receiving an income.

However, clearly this can create various problems for not only customers but also the worker and employer.

Employees, particularly those working in complaint departments, would receive misplaced negativity towards them that is purely based on their accent.

For those who have just arrived in the country and are trying to feel at home, this could cause emotional distress and feelings of not being welcome.

In order to combat the negative impacts, Dr Rao Hill believes it is necessary for employers and employees to be aware and prepared for the disadvantages involved.

“It’s important that the employees are well trained and competent as that will help break down stereotypes and improve the acceptance of diversity in the customer service industry,” she said.

Unfortunately providing migrants with more skills training than their Australian colleagues seems a more viable solution then changing public perception to show that an accent doesn’t affect an employee’s capability.

“Both can help but the automaticity of our reactions makes it difficult for a change in public perception to happen,” said Dr Rao Hill.

“When people listen to accented speech, the difficulty they encounter reduces ‘processing fluency’. But instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful.”

Similarly, AMES Employment Counsellor Paul Harrip puts the problem down to customers’ fear of a lack of understanding.

“Impatient customers experience fear and frustration because they don’t want to figure out what an employee with an accent is saying,” said Mr Harrip.

“If they’re just buying groceries they don’t care about an accent, but if they’re trying to sort out something like an overdue electricity bill they become worried the issue won’t be resolved.”

Therefore having an accent can be a huge barrier for migrants to get promotions or obtain a job suited to their skill set.

It is up to employers and educators to not only explain this to employees but also provide tools to combat it.

“We teach certain techniques such as slowing speech, using simpler words and checking that certain words have been understood,” said Mr Harrip.

At the end of the day however, no matter how much training one does, it can be impossible to speak ‘Aussie’.

“Regardless of how long someone is here for, how proficient they are in English, or their skill set, people can’t change if they have a strong accent,” said Mr Harrip.

Ruby Brown
AMES Staff Writer