Communicating Effectively without Offending Customers

A Reader’s Question:

My organization recently opened offices in India and Russia. I am now serving customers from those countries. Although most of our customers speak English, I don’t understand everything they say. How can I ask them to repeat themselves without insulting them?

Response from the Editors:

Becoming accustomed to certain accents takes time and patience. However, by perking up your senses, you will adapt to new pronunciations and usage of English words. Follow these guidelines to communicate effectively without offending customers:

  • Be honest. Politely tell the customer that you cannot understand. Never pretend that you understand, assuming you will catch up with the meaning later on. Say: “I am sorry; I am having a hard time understanding you. Would you please repeat what you said more slowly?” Key: To avoid offending customers, use wording that implies the problem lies with you.
  • Use the written word. If you meet with customers face-to-face, ask them to write the spelling of their name and other important information. In fact, make this a practice with all your customers, so you don’t single out one person. Benefit: You will always have accurate spellings and contact information for all your customers.

If you meet with customers by telephone only, use e-mail messages when appropriate. Many people write a second language better than they speak it. In addition, customers may feel at ease with more time to consider their wording.

Quote of the Week:

“Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game.”

—Tony Alessandra

Tip of the Week:

Move past your grudges

When animosity flares between you and a peer, rise above it. Adopt a healthy conflict-busting mentality:

  • Seek options. Respond to a dispute by listing ways to resolve it. That’s better than plotting revenge or adopting an “I’ll show them!” attitude.
  • Propose compromise. Refusing to budge will only exacerbate tension. Rather than using negative energy to figure out who’s at fault, find common ground by giving in a bit. Example: Replace “You’re going to pay for this!” with “In the interest of compromise, I will …”
  • Be straightforward. Level with your adversary about how you perceive the conflict. Use neutral language and emphasize your goal of resolution. A straightforward approach works better than ignoring a brewing conflict and hoping it’ll go away.

—Adapted from Help Yourself, Dave Pelzer, Dutton,

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Each issue of the First-Rate Customer Service Forum offers you tips for improving your customer service skills. Plus, you have the opportunity to request advice on your most vexing customer service problems—and receive feedback from your peers and our panel of editors!

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