I was recently helping with the launch of a new overseas customer. As you might imagine this involved a few conference calls and one day I was on the phone with a client who had a very thick accent. The account rep I was working with was having a great deal of trouble understanding the client, so I spent most of my time trying to make sure that everything was mutually understood. Here’s a few of my tips for managing these situations and coming out ok.
Rephrase & Repeat
My favorite trick works equally well with foreign customers as it does with bad conference call lines. It's simply to rephrase and repeat what the client said to you. "So if I'm reading you right, you're saying that we should cancel the contract and redraft it with a ten percent lower daily rate." That gives the other party ample opportunity to correct you or to reinforce what you got right.
Take the blame
Another alternative is to take the blame and fall on your sword. It's efficient and it's simple, but just like Rephrase and Repeat, you can't do it too often. Just say "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that." Blame a bad phone line if you must, but please don't use this too often. Once or twice during the call at most.
Phone a friend
In the event that you've tried options one and two and you're still not meeting success, you can always appeal to someone else on the call to give you context. Ask a third party, "So Bill, what do you think of Susan's suggestion? Your thoughts?" Bill's response might give you enough context to fill in the missing pieces.
Recap at the end
As the call winds down, it's also helpful to do a short recap. Double check the assumptions you made during the conversation. "As we're getting off the call, I just want to make sure I have everything straight...We're going to move up the ship date by a week to accommodate for the client's testing cycle, right?"
Unfortunately, YOUR understanding isn't the only obstacle you face. So let's talk about some ancillary concerns...
There are some amazing cultural differences in our world and they can turn a typical business conversation sideways. I've often encountered the issue of indirect cultures and their desire to not say "no." But there are a lot of other considerations as well and there's been a great deal written about them. Take advantage of it and learn more about our amazing world!
But do them a favor
Ultimately though...your clients might have just as hard of a time understanding you as you do them. I've encountered this in my own life. I speak a bit of German, but native speakers can be indecipherable when they start cleanly and crisply rattling off words like "Massenkommunikationsdienstleistungsunternehmen." My poor American brain takes a few minutes to try to disassemble all of that and make sense of it. Your clients are probably in the same boat. So give them a little extra time for comprehension and response. Combine that with no idioms, a nice easy speaking cadence, and straight-forward sentence structures. Then you'll have a recipe for success.