Language Barriers and Customer Service

Posted on September 24, 2012

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Would you expect to be able to move to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, and be hired for any kind of job where you have to interact with customers on any level?  This is an enduring mystery to me.  Not to mention, kind of frightening to contemplate.  I can get by pretty well in German and Spanish, but would never expect to be hired, say, to run the cash register at a McDonald’s in Germany or Spain.  What if I couldn’t understand the customers, or my boss?  What if I messed up the orders?  And what are the local employment laws, anyway?  How do I figure out how to pay taxes, or collect benefits?  That kind of stuff can get technical, fast – and I wouldn’t have the language to learn about it, or deal with it.

But immigrants somehow manage it, and always have.  My Great-Grandmother came here from Germany in the late 19th century and never did learn much English.  Then disaster struck: her husband died, leaving her alone with three young children and no income.  She spent the rest of her life scrubbing floors as a housemaid.  Without any command of English, there was no other work for her.

And yet, today – at least around the DC area – we routinely hire people for customer-service positions who can’t understand the basics of what the customer wants.  This can be an adventure, but does not make for the most successful business interactions.

We ran into this just last week.  After a busy morning, we decided to grab some lunch to take home.  Hmm, haven’t been to Wendy’s in a while, let’s try that.  It was clear that the cashiers were not native English-speakers, but so what – usually this turns out OK.  It’s not that hard to memorize the words from the menu and punch the matching button, right?  Wrong.  After a long wait, we ended up with one thing we ordered, one thing we did not, and were overcharged by about $4.00.  Even the receipt was not ours, but it didn’t match the contents of the bag, either.  Wonder what the other guy ended up with.

You’d think I would learn.  My favorite, most ridiculous episode of Non-English Speaking Customer Service actually occurred at the Subway shop inside the Pentagon, of all places.  Everything was going fine (the employees had apparently memorized the words on the menu).  But when they asked “Sauce?” I made a cardinal error:  I asked a question.  “What kinds do you have?”  I have never seen such a deer-in-the-headlights, oh-no-what-do-we-do-now look.  The employees looked at me.  They looked at each other.  They looked at me again.  I was thinking, I should not have to do this, especially not here, but…  I switched to my thoroughly rusty Spanish, and asked the question again.  Relief and smiles all around, the sauce was chosen, the sandwich assembled and off I went in wonderment.

It is not always so innocent and friendly, though.  A couple of years ago at a major chain store, I made a purchase using cash.  The cashier was an obvious non-native English-speaker, but she did speak English throughout the transaction… until it was time to give me my change.  She rooted around in the drawer a bit and then handed me one nickel.  I stood there waiting for the rest of it.  When it seemed clear she thought she was done, I asked for the rest of it.  Suddenly she didn’t speak English any more, how convenient!  I wasn’t going away.  She summoned another cashier over and they spoke nothing but Spanish in front of me from that moment onward, not realizing that Gringa chick here could follow the conversation.  The first explained to the second what I had paid, what my change was, and that she had given me the nickel.  The second thought that was just fine.  At this point I interrupted in English and said, “No, it’s not fine, I want all of my change.”  They looked at me as if I had three eyes and went back to their Spanish conversation.  I still wasn’t going anywhere, and now I was ticked off enough that I was not going to speak Spanish, no way, not when the language barrier was being used to try to blatantly rip me off.  I can be stubborn.  They finally surrendered and gave me my correct change.  To this day, I am convinced that they were “skimming” by keeping cash customers’ change and using the language barrier to frustrate the customers into giving up and leaving.  So I reported my experience to the manager, and again online.  That one left a very sour aftertaste.

I appreciate that America is a nation of immigrants.  My own family is no exception.  Tracing the branches of the family tree, we find that fully half of them lead to immigrants in the past two, three, or four generations.  My Great-Grandmother the housemaid, from Germany.  Coal miners from Wales.  A sea captain from Spain.  Cajuns from France, by way of a generation or two in Canada.  They all follow a pattern:  the new arrivals were poor and worked menial jobs.  Prosperity only came after they had mastered English.  Some new arrivals made it  a point to learn English.  Other branches of the family languished in linguistic enclaves for more than a generation.  That pattern continues today with our newest immigrants.  They may arrive without English, but they come to work.  I grasp that.

What I don’t grasp is: why do businesses hire customer-service employees who cannot communicate with the majority of their customers?  In this economy, especially?  Are we to believe that there are no English-speaking applicants for these cashier jobs?  Is this some kind of political correctness, or trying to help people out, or taking advantage of people who might accept lower pay or no benefits?  I guess it could be any of those things.  But it’s not good customer service.

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