Do accents play a role in call centers? Let me tell you an anecdote:
I’m a Dane, but I got my university degree abroad. In Leeds, in Yorkshire, in the north of England. I graduated in the last millennium. That’s so long ago that the mobile phone I had back then was the size of a small suitcase and had an antenna as big as a fishing rod, so things may well have changed since then. Still, my anecdote goes like this:
Several of my co-students had student jobs. Most worked in pubs, but I’d noticed that a surprisingly high number worked in call centers. I’d also noticed that on the bulletin boards in the university’s corridors, you’d often see flyers from companies looking to hire student workers for their call centers.
I hadn’t seen that at other universities. That made me wonder: “Why are those companies making such a big thing out of targeting students from this university?”
When I asked some of my peers who had call center jobs, the first thing they said was:
“Forget it! They’re desperate for labor, but they won’t hire you …”
I wanted to know why.
“Accent!” they said, “It’s all about accent!”
Fair enough, I had a Danish accent that would probably only be an advantage if a call center was dealing with a very narrow line of products, such as pickled herrings or Danish butter cookies.
“No, that’s not it. A lot of native English speakers don’t get those jobs either,” they said. “The call centers are looking specifically for people with Yorkshire accents.”
Now, Yorkshire is one of the friendliest places I’ve lived, so I really don’t want to offend anyone from Yorkshire, but if as an outsider you want to have a go at speaking with a Yorkshire accent, follow this procedure:
- Get a reasonably large baked potato
- Place the potato in your mouth
- Speak English
So why would a Yorkshire accent be an advantage when speaking over the phone in a call center?
The reason turned out to be that, in the UK, a Yorkshire accent was often perceived as being honest and trustworthy.
You could make a good deal with a Yorkshire person.
A Yorkshire person would give you good, honest, no-frills advice.
A Yorkshire person wouldn’t let you down, because a word was a word, and so on and so on …
So, in the context of call centers, Yorkshire accents were sought after as a precious resource. Conversely, other regional accents were said to signify unscrupulous wheeler dealers who’d be happy to sell their old grandmothers to get a quick buck.
We’ve reached the end of the anecdote, but writing this has made me think: Are there regional accents in my own language that I trust more than others, depending on the context of course?
As much as I like to view myself as an open-minded person, I think the answer is probably yes. To me, some regional accents probably generate more trust or signify better tradesmanship and acumen than others.
Using the way that people speak to judge their ability to deliver good service is of course stereotyped and unfair, but it does prove that beauty can also exist in the ear of the beholder …
Morten Müller is Documentation & Localization Manager at Zylinc’s HQ in Denmark.