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Chapter 3. Say that Again?!?

Communication breakdown between the virtual assistants and the caller is more often due to the wrong delivery of message or simply not meaning the same things and not the nationality or the accent of the persons involved, although the latter is often pointed as the culprit.
Ignore the frustration between the two and you will see the humor in this exchange:

*** Virtual Assistant: Web support, can I help you:
*** Caller: Hi! I’m trying to book a flight on a website, but I don’t see the option! Can you help me?
*** Virtual Assistant: Ok! Let’s get started… Are you on the website now?
*** Caller: Yes! I’m on the website.
*** Virtual Assistant: Do you see the logo?
*** Caller: Yes I see it, but I don’t the option to book a flight.
*** Virtual Assistant: Ok sir, what do you see on the page?
*** Caller: It says Google.

Communication is basically encoding, transmission of the message and decoding. Encoding means putting the information or feelings you want to share together. Transmission is saying the message in oral or written form. Decoding is the receiving and interpretation of the message by the person you are talking with. A breakdown in any of the three components will inevitably result in either a hair pulling, phone or head banging scenario between the caller and the agent. In the above exchange, there will be a breakdown of the communication whether the virtual assistant is American, British, Indian or an alien. They are simply not talking about the same things!
Let’s examine the several barriers that hinder effective communication. One of them is the physical barrier.

*** Caller: I’d like the number to the Argoed Fish Bar in Cardiff, please.
*** Virtual Assistant: I’m sorry, there’s no listing. Is the spelling correct?
*** Caller: Well, it used to be called the Bargoed Fish Bar but the “B” fell off.

Of course, in the above example, not only physical barrier could be attributed to the miscommunication but the seemingly brain malfunction of the caller as well. But seriously, physical barriers refer to physical factors affecting communication. A simple example may be a closed door between the persons talking that would diminish the decibel of their voices. In a call center environment, outdated equipment where static competes with the transmission of voices would be a physical barrier, as well as loud music from virtual assistants’ work stations or the traffic noises coming from an open window. Ignorance of the media being used could be a physical barrier such as when the virtual assistants does not know how to use the call center’s work station or when the caller does not know how to use a touch phone and therefore could not follow the PABX’s voice prompts.
Another barrier is the system design barrier.

*** Virtual Assistant: Sir, that is C for Cubao, Q for Quiapo…
*** Caller: What is that?! I don’t understand. I don’t want to talk to you.
*** Virtual Assistant: Who do you want to talk to?
*** Caller: I want to talk to the highest person.
*** Virtual Assistant: My supervisor is not available as of the moment sir.
*** Caller: I said I want to talk to the highest person!
*** Virtual Assistant: Ok, you want to talk to the highest person?
*** Caller: Yes!
*** Virtual Assistant: Do you want to talk to God?
*** Caller: What the f***! I’d rather talk to you.

To understand system design barrier, let us understand system design. In a call center or business process outsourcing environment, system design refers to the flow of data, the inputs and outputs of the system. It is supposed to facilitate a systematic and rigorous approach to a given situation or problem. System design becomes a barrier when virtual assistants and callers alike are confused as to how the data should flow, who is responsible for what type of problem. Too often callers demand for the supervisor and if the person is incapable of providing a solution, demands for the supervisor of the supervisor begin, or as the caller said, “the highest person.”

Linguistic Barrier is another factor that could trigger miscommunication.
*** Virtual Assistant: It’s C as cat.
*** Caller: What?
*** Virtual Assistant: C as in cat. C-A-T as in meow meow.

Linguistic barriers may be experienced even by native English speakers because of the numerous meanings, implied meanings and slang of the English language. There are about 500 basic words that are being used daily. And these 500 words have over 10,000 meanings. Room for interpretation and distortion exists because language is a symbolic representation of phenomenon. Typically, in a face-to-face conversation, humans take their linguistic cues for the non verbal actions of the person, such as a frown, crossed arms, or slouch. But in a telephone conversation where speakers cannot see each other, miscommunication is magnified because the linguistic cues of the speakers are limited to the tone and pacing of voice.

Limitation in physical and mental ability, intelligence, understanding, pre-conceived notions and distrusted sources all affect the attitude and opinion of speakers resulting to an attitudinal barrier. When there is an attitudinal barrier, the speaker and or the receiver may be abstracting or selectively hearing parts of the conversation, emotionally editing or selectively hearing parts of the conversation in consonance with his/her emotion, stereotyping or prejudicing the other person.

*** Virtual Assistant: Good day. How may I help you?
*** Caller: Hello… I can’t print.
*** Virtual Assistant: Would you click on “start” for me and…
*** Caller: Listen pal, don’t start getting technical on me! I’m not Bill Gates ya know.
There is a physiological barrier in the communication if there is a sensory dysfunction in either the sender or receiver of the message. Physiological barriers may be hearing and vision impairment and speech disorder.
*** Virtual Assistant: The computer has a hard disk, CD ROM drive and 4 USB slots.
*** Caller: Sluts? Are you sure (giggling) I’m going to get 4 sluts along with the computer?
*** Virtual Assistant: Yes, absolutely sir!
*** Caller: Well, in that case, I’d like to order that computer then!
Cultures provide people with a way of seeing, hearing and interpreting things. There is a cultural barrier if either the receiver or sender does not understand the message as framed within the cultural context. Take this example:
*** Virtual Assistant: That’s N as in Nancy, V for Victor, and L for… ahhh…ummm… LIEMPO!

Liempo in the Philippines means grilled pork belly, something that every Filipino knows. Unfortunately, this knowledge is not shared by other nationalities, hence the cultural barrier in the communication. Cultural barriers are seriously taken into account of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, which is why most of them use the services of westernized nations like the Philippines and Singapore. Indian and other BPO companies heavily invest in training for their virtual assistants to overcome this barrier.

Emotional barriers may mean the inability to express or understand how the speaker transmits the message relative to his/her emotion. For example, Italians are generally more open about their emotion and may be more expressive than the Brits. The Americans would think nothing about expressing their anger, something that the Japanese will not easily do. Aside from this, the emotion of the sender and receiver could also become emotional barriers. According to Patricia McBride and Susan Maitland in The EI Advantage: Putting Emotional Intelligence into Practice, “Your emotional state may influence your capacity to make yourself understood and hamper your understanding of others.”

This holds true in this conversation:

*** Virtual Assistant: What is the problem?
*** Caller: I put the disk in and tried to install it, but my keyboard is inadequate!
*** Virtual Assistant: No special keyboard is required to install your digital camera software.
*** Caller: Liar! The salesperson at the store said the same thing! Now that I get home and try to install the software it won’t finish.
*** Virtual Assistant: Can you walk me through the steps you’ve tried?
*** Caller: I put the disk in, a welcome screen pops up and says, ‘hit any key to continue.’ I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find that stupid key!
And lastly, there is the gender barrier.
Virtual Assistant asking customer to be put on hold…
*** Virtual Assistant: Sir, can I just hold you for a minute?
*** Caller: Sure baby, go ahead!

Although the humorous exchange is not absolutely about gender barrier and more of a linguistic barrier, there is a circulating notion that men are funnier than women. Something that is disproved by Laura Mickes, a female postdoctoral researcher in “Who’s Funny: Gender Stereotypes, Humor Production, and Memory Bias”
Sense of Humor is only one of the components of gender barriers in communication. Thousands of books are published on the subject but the basics are these: There tends to be miscommunication between both sexes because men’s brain is wired differently from women’s brain. For the men, their left side of the brain is responsible for speech, making them think in a linear, logical and compartmentalized way. For women, both the left side and right side are responsible for speech, which allows women to think more abstractly and mix logic and emotion. Gender based communication differences are also nurtured early in childhood, like girls are encouraged to express themselves in flowery words while boys are expected to speak in a straightforward manner.

Understanding the different barriers to effective communication will allow us to understand the reason for the breakdown in communication instead of simply blaming it on the nationality or diction of the person on the other end of the line.