Who’s calling, please?

Who answers the phone in your office?

Who talks to the English-speaking customers?


Was your answer “the same person”? Good. That’s how it should be. I hope you value their contribution to your company. Using the phone, without the visual clues of body language, facial expression or context, is one of the hardest things to do in another language.

I’ve worked with many companies where the person who is supposed to handle all incoming calls lacks the confidence to do so when the caller speaks English. I’ve had many more experiences where employees in all roles were either incapable of taking such a phone call or were too frightened to try.

In most departments, you’ll hear one name shouted urgently when a colleague gets an English-speaking caller. The name of the only person who’s competent or brave enough to talk to strangers in another language.

In too many companies, departments have nobody who’ll take on that role, so calls are frantically diverted to the single employee, whether receptionist or IT engineer, who’s known to be comfortable understanding and speaking telephone English. The results, for caller and company, are not good.

I remember contacting an organisation when I needed technical advice about their product. My options were (a) to talk to an appropriate member of staff using a language I wasn’t comfortable in or (b)  to use the language I wanted to speak (an official language of the country I was calling) with somebody from a different department, who would not be able to answer my queries. They eventually found someone who could converse with me, but he was an accounts clerk in a different city. I felt really sorry for him. He offered to research the information I needed and call me back the next day, but I thanked him profusely (he must be sick of getting calls from customers he can’t help) and told him not to bother.

As a leader or manager, you know that the initial impression a client gets of your company is the only one that matters. If someone tries to make an enquiry and the first staff member they speak to can’t understand them, you’ve lost a potential account. Worse still, if the person calling wants to make a complaint or resolve a problem, but is unable to communicate with the people you’re paying to provide that service, you’ve created a frustrated, angry ex-client who may well harm your reputation.

Get your staff trained. Anyone who has to speak English on the phone at work, and is less than bilingual, needs an opportunity to build confidence through practice and discussion, to prepare topics specific to the company, and to clear up any doubts arising from difficult telephone conversations they’ve already had.

Online sessions with a trained native speaker will give an employee the opportunity to ask questions, admitting their weaknesses privately. They’ll be able to practise the particular skills and language they need in the job. They’ll overcome their fear by getting used to Skyping with a native speaker.

They might need only one or two sessions, just to polish their English. But many employees, especially those who are new to their post or are responsible for customer service, would value a 15 or 20 minute session each day. This would give time for “What should I have said?” and the role playing that follows. It would allow for customised preparation of meetings or teleconferences. More than this, it would reassure your employees that their pronunciation and intonation was correct.


What about your key personnel?

With its flexibility of timing and location, online support may be the most appropriate way you can help them develop their professional English skills. But is it enough for them?

Some might require a bespoke immersion course, for a weekend, a week or a month, depending on their individual needs. One-to-one intensive work on their reading and writing, and, in particular, their listening and speaking skills will do wonders for their confidence and accuracy. Tailor-made to your industry or profession, using the language in real-life situations relevant to their role in your organisation, such courses are one of the best HR investments you can make, either for new or relocating employees or for those who are being promoted or making a lateral move.

Now, what about you? As CEO, do you always feel completely comfortable in an English-speaking situation?

If the language in a meeting is English, are you as competent as you would be in your mother tongue? Do you feel intimidated by other speakers, who may well be junior to you but have a better command of English?

Many of my clients in the financial world approached me initially because they felt less effective in English-medium meetings. They noticed that everyone around the table went quiet when a London banker (or a German who spoke with a British accent) was speaking. In that world, sounding British earns a certain kind of respect. Those clients needed to sound confidently British.

Are social settings a problem for you?

I’m often contacted by doctors, lawyers and other professionals who are at ease speaking English in a professional scenario. “I know what I’m talking about on a conference platform, but then we go for dinner and my neighbour starts asking me about my kids’ education or attempts to discuss current affairs. I’m lost. I’m just not accustomed to that kind of conversation and I don’t have the vocabulary”. Sound familiar? It’s supposed to be a time for relaxation but it can be more stressful than the working part of the conference.

Are you terrified of the telephone?

I began this article by outlining the importance of ensuring that your customer-facing staff are at ease when using English on the phone.

But what about you? Do you have the same needs?


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