UK: THE ACCENT IS THE MESSAGE. - When all you hear on the phone is a voice, the accent matters.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When all you hear on the phone is a voice, the accent matters.

A call centre would appear - at first glance - to be something that a company could establish wherever there are sufficient numbers of suitable people. When it comes to taking telephone enquiries, there's no real difference between central London and central Londonderry.

But those who believe that overheads and quality of workforce are the only criteria might do well to bend their ears to the local twang - for some people, at least, maintain that accents carry significant messages of their own.

Dr Guy Fielding, head of communications and information studies at Queen Mary College, Edinburgh, explains: 'When we talk to people we want to know a bit about them - it affects how we feel.

On the phone all we have is the voice, and in the UK an important speech characteristic is the accent - there are clear stereotypes.' Fielding points out, however, that there is no way of putting a value on any particular accent. To complicate matters, he adds that different accents lend themselves to different purposes, also that an accent may prejudice a company's perceptions of the region as well as a customer's perceptions of the company.

Some businesses will have none of this subtlety. 'It isn't really a consideration,' says Laura O'Connell, head of PR at Direct Line. 'We have operations in six cities,' she points out, 'and the primary criteria have been an even distribution (of centres), quality of staff and communication links. We're much more interested in clarity of voice, and all our initial interviews take place over the telephone.' At IBM's Greenock centre, communications manager Gerry Boyle takes a similar line. 'Our call centre covers the whole of Europe, so language skills were much more important than the Scottish accent.'

However, research conducted by TSB Phonebank suggests that one in five Britons actually prefer a Scottish accent to any other. And many companies accept that, even if not the determining factor, regional modes of speech are nonetheless important. 'When we decided to locate in Leeds, the primary issues for us were more logistical, but we did some research on accents,' says First Direct's commercial director, Peter Simpson. 'Certain accents, especially the Yorkshire accent, were seen as very trustworthy - particularly by southerners.' First Direct now has a second call centre in Leeds. Similarly Legal & General found, when plumping for Cardiff, that the local accent was widely liked by callers.

A few organisations go further and apply the principle of 'horses for courses'. The Royal Automobile Club has two types of call centre: those for handling breakdowns and those for other services. 'With breakdowns, accent is less of an issue - people just want the problem solved,' says PR manager Peter Brill. Other services are different. 'It's all about building a relationship with customers,' Brill explains. 'Here it's an advantage to be talking to someone from your geographical area. In the long term, we'd like to see more geographically-focused call centres.' The idea of an 'own region preference' is borne out by a recent direct-mail campaign. Letters sent to Scotland and Wales and bearing Scottish or Welsh numbers received a markedly higher response than those with English or 0800 numbers.

For most businesses, accent will never be a major factor - cost will still come first. But the local burr might still be worth listening to.

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