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How To Speak With Customers From Different States And Other Foreigners

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions



There’s been a lot of talk lately about outsourcing offshore, with emphasis placed on the lack of cultural similarities between American consumers and call center agents of Southeast Asia, and the difficulties regarding accents and the differences in implied meaning in certain phrases. Fewer people in the industry talk about the very real culture and language differences between Americans from state to state.

Everyone knows we’re regionally different. It’s the basis for a lot of good-natured ribbing. I once heard someone in another part of the country refer to the Olive Garden as an “Italian restaurant.” I tried to keep my snort inaudible. On the flip side, what serves as barbecue here in the Northeast is little more than sad chicken wings half-heartedly smeared with spicy ketchup. We are also different in terms of social interaction. Not to perpetuate the stereotype of taciturn, keep-to-ourselves New Englanders, but when I’m in another part of the country, perhaps in a supermarket checkout line, and the individual standing in front of me tries to strike up a conversation, my first though is usually, “Ax murderer. Back away slowly.” Overt friendliness from strangers makes some of us uncomfortable. To other people, it’s simply a way of life and community.

In marketing, it’s most notable in television commercials. Easy to spot are the commercials that have been made for a nationwide audience, with no attempt to cater to regional differences in taste or experience. What’s funny in one part of the country may come across as just plain weird in another.

Car companies are the worst offenders. The vast majority of television commercials for trucks seem to portray cowboys, tossed hay bales, country-western music and running horses. I hate to tell the advertising community, but cowboys just don’t get us going up here in the urban Northeast (though the running horses are pretty). It feels like what it is — a poorly targeted ad, inappropriate for the region. Now, if you illustrated the fact that the truck is so big and heavy you could plow right over the slick lawyer in the BMW — driving like an unmentionable element of the posterior anatomy — who lane-switches and cuts you off on the Massachusetts Turnpike at 82 mph, you’d pique our interest. It would be something we can relate to. In the Great Lakes states, show the truck able to pull out from under nine feet of snow. In the Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles metro areas, boast how great the vehicle looks sitting completely still for long periods in traffic, which is what you’re likely to be doing with the truck 90 percent of your time in those cities.

Interactions between customers and call centers, too, fall prey to regional differences. I once had a complex customer service interaction with an agent who responded “Yes, Ma’am” to everything I said. I found it annoying, whereas it had been intended to be respectful. I’m not the Queen of England — neither do I have blue hair or wear a plastic rain hat — please don’t call me “Ma’am.” In some parts of the U.S., calling a stranger by his or her first name is not only acceptable; it lends a feeling of personalization and extra-special customer care to the interaction. In other parts of the country, it’s considered overly familiar and rude.

On another call, an agent, inquiring as to whether my family members might be interested in the offer, referred to “my kin.” My kin? I had never before heard anyone speak the word in that context; I’d only read it in William Faulkner novels and heard it sung in Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.

Just as people in the Northeast or on West Coast might get distracted by a “y’all,” (“Hey honey — the call center agent just said ‘y’all’ to me! No one has ever said that to me before!”), the “Yiddishisms” that some urban East Coasters use freely might confuse other regions. “Tech support! I’m such a schmegeggy. I got shmutz in my new PC’s CD drive, and my wife, the nudjh, thinks I need to schlep it back and get another.”

Beyond vocabulary and cultural differences, individuals across different parts of the U.S. have a tendency to speak at different cadences. I have a friend of New York Italian origin who speaks so fast and voluminously that it sounds and feels more like a medium-pitched vibration rather than normal human speech. Even her oldest friends need to tell her periodically to slow down and rewind. I can’t imagine how call center agents in other parts of the country would cope with her…probably hang up on her and call the IT department to report static on the line.

On the flip side, to my friend, someone who speaks with a more leisurely, perhaps Southern, cadence might cause her to chew her own arm off with impatience by the end of the conversation. In the span of one greeting sentence from the agent, my friend could have explained her entire problem and customer history, read back a 237-digit serial number and recited all the lyrics of “La Bohème.” How different in culture and language would this exchange be compared with one between an American customer and an Indian agent?

Too often, we assume that issues caused by communications difficulties are a “foreign” problem. As long as you’re trying to tailor your customer care to your target audience, don’t forget that a call isn’t just a call. And sometimes a can of soda is just a can of pop. CIS.

The author may be contacted at

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