Language limbo

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico with a client who had installed one of our products. This particular product enables a caller to give their credit card and social security number or other sensitive information to the call center agent without the agent hearing or seeing the actual number. In this way, the client and company are protected and the phone agent’s life is simpler, easier and more efficient. Fraudsters are dead in their tracks.

Yet software, being software, has this nasty habit of not always working exactly the way the user wants it to. Hold on, did I really just admit that publicly? KomBea software? Is the CEO really admitting he markets, sells and deploys software that is fallible at times? Shocked? Just keeping it real. Mums the word; do not tell our developers I just said that.

OK — back to the blog. I like to get out and talk to the troops on the front lines, using our products. I tell my clients I want to hear the good, bad and ugly. We talked about what the customer on the phone liked about the solution. We talked about what the telephone agents liked and did not like about the product. These agents were in Mexico servicing American clients and they gave me invaluable insights as to what was working well and what needed to be improved.

However, what I truly was impressed with was their English skills. Their command of the English language sincerely caught me off guard. I found myself jealous of their multilingual dexterity and the value this talent gave them to easily and effectively communicate with many around the globe. It was apparent that those agents had taken time and energy to learn how to sincerely communicate with U.S. callers in English through years of hard work and perseverance.

The experience took me back to a time when I lived in Holland and I was trying to learn Dutch. My family and I lived in Holland for seven-plus years but my Dutch is embarrassingly pathetic. Yet, as a family we tried to learn the Dutch language, and in doing so, we won the hearts and admiration of many Dutch friends who admired our willingness to try. Trust me — Dutch is no easy language to learn. At least, it wasn’t for me.

My wife at the time was far better and braver than me and would put herself in situations that forced her to speak Dutch on a more regular basis.

I was stunned when she announced to the family that she was going to be teaching Sunday School at a local congregation we were attending. Sure, there were a few ex-pat kids smattered about, but by in large, most of the youth were authentically Dutch and spoke very little English, if at all. What a brave, brave soul. It is hard enough holding the attention of small children when you speak their mother tongue fluently, but the acceptance of this teaching opportunity was a true test of faith.

Each week, my wife would painstakingly prepare, practice and fret over her lesson and how to most effectively reach those impressionable, young Dutch minds. Almost every week, she would have the kids quietly pondering her lesson and its meaning and other times, they were laughing, giggling and entertained by my wife’s message. She exemplified what a caring, hardworking, kind Sunday School teacher is all about. This pattern continued for about a year.

One Sunday morning, one of the Dutch mothers approached us as we were about to drive home from church and humbly asked if she could speak to my wife about her lesson. This was not out of the norm; my wife often received praises from parents expressing their gratitude for her burgeoning bilingual ability and how she was genuinely reaching the children in a powerful way. My young daughter Kelly and I peeled away and kept walking towards the car to give them some privacy. We waited for their conversation to run its course.

I watched from a distance as the conversation progressed. As I watched, I could sense this was more than a passing “great job” accolade. I could tell that my wife took whatever message was being delivered more seriously by her body language and facial expression. After several moments, they gave each other polite kisses on each cheek (the customary way of saying hello and goodbye to good friends in Holland) and my wife made her way to the car, where we were waiting.

I did not have to ask what the conversation was about; my wife was itching to tell me. In a hushed tone so my daughter could not hear and ask for definitions, my wife explained that she had been teaching the youth of that congregation the entire time about The Father, Son and The Horny Ghost. Yes, you read that right. All those times when those kids were giggling, snickering and laughing, I thought my wife’s wit was driving home some spiritual concept, blending education with humor. We laughed and laughed all the way home. All year, my wife had been urging these kids to listen to and follow the Horny Ghost and that the Horny Ghost would never lead them astray. Too, too funny. I can only imagine the dinner conversations as well-meaning parents asked their innocent children “what did we learn in Sunday School today?”

Never be scared of learning a new language. I can assure you, the old axiom is spot-on. While learning anything new, especially a new language, nothing feels better than getting it right after getting it wrong.

What my wife and those Mexican bilingual agents taught me is that most everyone is essentially doing their best in this crazy, mixed-up world. When others make mistakes, we must remind ourselves why. No one is perfect; everybody has inner demons, everybody has flaws. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. When you watch others striving to learn and making mistakes, you will know that they are in the arena of life, braving to lay it on the line. Learning, trying new things and making mistakes go hand-in-hand. You cannot do one without the other.

I hope that my children make many mistakes in life. Why? Because if they are making mistakes, they are learning and living, evolving and exploring, and isn’t that what life is about? Isn’t that what we want for our children? I want my children to try things they have never done before. Run for class president, write a play, sing a solo — perhaps even learn a language. And every time they stumble and get it wrong, they will bask in the joy of getting it right.

(For the record, if you did not grin at this one, I cannot be your friend. I promise — the Horny Ghost reverently chortled.)

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During the past twenty-five years, Art has worked in leadership positions with a number of global firms and their call/BPO centers worldwide. Currently president and CEO of KomBea Corporation, Art has served for more than a dozen years developing and marketing tools that blend human intelligence and automation to improve call center phone interactions.
Art has also served as executive vice president of business development and strategic initiatives for First-Source; CEO and founder of Echopass Corporation (the world’s premier contact center hosting environment, which was acquired by Genesys for about $110 million); CEO of Sento Corporation; and managing director and VP of European business development for Sykes Enterprises.
Art is a widely-published author of methodologies for BPO/contact centers, outsourcing, customer service, and technical support, and has served in leadership positions at Hewlett-Packard, VLSI Research, and RasterOps.

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