Angry call centre worker

June 14, 2017, by Sunita Tailor

“How can I help?”: Using Applied Linguistics Research in Call Centres

Whether it’s our scepticism of cold calls, exasperation with prolonged waiting times or general frustration with bureaucratic processes, we’ve all had our issues with call centres at one point or another. Whilst recent developments in technology have given us new and innovative platforms through which to engage with organisations, such as web chats and social media, interacting with a company’s employee over the phone remains the preferred mode of communication for many customers.

When service from call centres isn’t up to scratch, it can be both a nuisance to us as outsiders and extremely costly to the businesses themselves. In October 2016, for instance, part of Vodaphone’s £4.6million fine by Ofcom was for miscommunicating with customers over their rights with regard to unresolved complaints. More recently, in May 2017, Keurboom Communications were fined a record £400,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office following complaints by more than 1,000 recipients of cold calls. What is less well-acknowledged about the call centre industry, however, is the scepticism, exasperations and frustrations that the people on the other end of the line, namely the call centre agents themselves (which as of January 2016 constituted 4% of the UK’s working population), experience on a daily basis.

Call centres represent a type of new-age factory in contemporary society, where traditional manual labour has been replaced by “language labour”. The absence of other important visual cues in communication from telephone encounters, such as facial expressions and body language, makes call centre agents’ use of language absolutely crucial. Therefore, it is unsurprising that call centres go to great lengths to control and monitor what their employees are permitted to say and how they say it, and, often just as importantly, what they are not allowed to say.

In extreme cases, every part of an agent’s input in a conversation can be scripted word-by-word. Whilst impractical – after all, what if a customer says something an agent cannot respond to? – this also subjects agents to a process of “de-individuation”. Void of linguistic licence and expression, the agent may have little option but to operate under the guise of a personality that has been constructed for them by the organisation, rather than their own. When this de-individuation is combined with the inevitably repetitive nature of call centre work itself, it is unsurprising this is an industry with notoriously high levels of staff stress and turnover. In my experience of working in and studying this workplace, it can be the very things that are intended to make employees’ jobs easier that can actually make them more difficult.

Research in applied linguistics is beginning to give an insight into precisely why the currently-adopted “one-size-fits-all” approach to language use in call centres is not guaranteed to work for both the agents who use it and the customers who are faced with it. The analysis of real call centre interactions by academics who specialise in studying the effectiveness of language use in conversation is starting to identify when and why miscommunication and frustrations may occur. This knowledge can be fed back to call centre managers and implemented in training programmes, for instance.

A number of studies have already pointed to the same conclusion: that because language is a creative resource, it may be a fruitless exercise to attempt to comprehensively anticipate and predetermine people’s behaviour in conversations. In reality, there is an increasing need for call centres to embrace the linguistic diversity of their workforce and so allow their employees the space and freedom to use language in a more natural and spontaneous way.

The collaboration of professionals from the call centre industry with academics in applied linguistics research, like those from LiPP at the University of Nottingham, promises to provide ways of developing call centre practices in order to help limit customer scepticism, exasperation and frustration, enhance the working lives and conditions of call centre workers and improve the overall operation of call centre businesses themselves.

Leigh Harrington
LiPP PhD Researcher

Posted in Research