• Failing to communicate in a language that is so widely used is not just harmful to one’s own business, but also the city’s overall competitiveness
There is no evidence to prove that English speakers were less worse off in the past when it comes to call centre service. Photo: Shutterstock

What is more frustrating than waiting on a customer service hotline to have your call answered? The answer would probably be getting through finally but not understood by someone who is supposed to speak your language. Exasperating as it is, many non-Cantonese speakers have to put up with such an experience.

The problem is reflected in a study based on test calls to service centres in five sectors. The overall score for services for English speakers was 76.75, out of 100, compared with 95.3 for services in Cantonese, according to the Hong Kong Call Centre Association and Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency. More than 1,000 phone calls were made in the five sectors: banking, insurance and finance, commerce and utilities, telecommunications, and tourism. The calls were rated according to standards such as understanding the needs of customers and service attitude.

The findings should not come as a surprise when Cantonese is the native tongue for most people. Despite government efforts to also promote the use of English and Mandarin, many still struggle to converse in a second language. Concerns have also been raised that proficiency in the English language has been on the decline since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

There is no evidence to prove that English speakers were less worse off in the past when it comes to call centre service. But the situation is compounded by more companies outsourcing their customer services to regions with lower labour costs, be it for Cantonese or English speakers. It is not uncommon for callers to soon find out that they are seeking help from someone on the mainland, in India or the Philippines who has never set foot in Hong Kong. Whether differential service standards for callers in different tongues amounts to discrimination is open to debate. But customers are certainly dismayed if they feel they are less valuable to a company than others. With a fifth of the world's population speaking English as their first or second language, its importance as a business and international language cannot be overstated. Failing to communicate in a language that is so widely used is not just harmful to one's own business, but also the city's overall competitiveness.

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