Thursday, 8 September 2011

Business English - telephoning

Chinasa checks an order
 Using the telephone can be one of the hardest ways to interact, but it is also a common feature of a working day. It is therefore vital that language students get practical practice if they are studying for business/work. The the number one piece of advice I give all my students is "check, then double-check" ...imagine you forget to ask for the surname of your customer, get the company name wrong or the order/phone number/bank account numbers mixed up. Could be your last day at work!

An important hurdle to overcome is the fear factor. Whatever you are trying to do on the phone, plan it out. If you are making the call, know who you need to talk to, how to start the conversation and what you need from it. Likewise,, get into the routine of always answering the phone in the same way. We always warm up before sport; need to do the same thing with the phone.

I think the fear comes from several angles - these we have no way of knowing before we call:
Aya listens attentively
  • The other person might speak too fast
  • The other person might have a strong accent
  • The other person might think I am stupid
  • The other person might be 'better' than me (at English)
  • The other person might be 'worse' than me (at English)
  • The other person might not be 'there'
  • Something might go wrong!
Practice makes perfect, and practicing in a realistic way makes a big difference. Sitting next to your partner is a good way to become familiar with the pattern/turn taking routine, work out pronunciation etc, but after that, we really need some separation!

One aspect of 'fear' I didn't mention was colleagues listening in or being critical. I am lucky with my class here, as they all work in the same section. We went back to our desks and called the partner who was furthest away, and practiced checking an order for various parts, nuts, and bolts. A nice noisy environment, just as it is in a regular working day, with other conversations to compete against to be heard. And the boss was watching!

Noisy environment - focus!
Another way you can achieve this practice (teachers) is Skype; mobile phones also good if the students don't mind paying for their own calls. For teachers trying to monitor this, don't jump in and correct - see what is happening & if any of your advice needs repeating. You'll probably find the students will give each other the best feedback like 'speak up' or 'you forgot xyz'. Try to position yourself where you can hear 'both ends' of the conversation - if it breaks down, huddle the participants, identify the breakdown (eg "You didn't say blah blah blah to signal you had finished")

The best feedback I got from my class was that the practice we had just done was exactly what they were trying to do on the phone the previous day with a Chinese customer, who they needed to 'manage'. Next time, they have the toolkit to take care of business better.

Final tip (for teachers), is aim low. As with graded readers, students need to be competent in general English above the work you are trying to achieve. You are teaching new tricks and specialised vocabulary/communication situations, and you need good foundations to house this on. Be consistent - same pattern over & over. Yes, the phone is scary. Better the enemy you know!