Rationalizing politeness: Naming as a shortcut to customer care in call centre telephone talk

Hultgren, Anna Kristina (2016). Rationalizing politeness: Naming as a shortcut to customer care in call centre telephone talk. In: Sociolinguistics Symposium 21, 15-18 Jun 2016, Murcia.

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Fuelled by globalization – specifically advances in information technology, plummeting costs of data transmission, political and economic deregulation, and perennial attempts to control costs – call centres have grown exponentially since the early 1990s, effectively replacing face-to-face with call centre service provision (Holman et al. 2007; Income Data Services 2005). Despite this, most studies on politeness in service encounters have focused on face-to-face interactions. Perhaps even more than face-to-face service providers, call centre agents are faced with the inherently contradictory demands of processing calls efficiently while also providing excellent "customer care", here used synonymously with "politeness". This study considers how this tension is managed in call centre service interactions, the default type of service provision in contemporary society.

Drawing on data from an inbound, onshore call centre in Scotland, comprising a corpus of 79 authentic service interactions, interviews, on-site observations and institutional documents, the study combines quantitative and qualitative approaches with a view to explore how agents negotiate the tension between efficiency and customer care in actual customer service interactions. It is found that, while both efficiency and customer care are accorded importance in institutional policy, in practice, efficiency overwhelmingly overrides customer care. Furthermore, in the few cases where agents actually engage in customer care, naming – using the customer’s first or last name (John, Lisa, Mr. Smith, Mrs. Smith) – appears to be used as a shortcut to customer care, sometimes up to eight times in a short interaction. Presumably, the reason for this is that naming is quicker than striking up a conversation with the customer, which, alongside naming is another institutional prescription. In other words, naming can be seen as a way of “rationalizing politeness” thereby ensuring that the call centre agent meets at one and the same time the contradictory demands of efficiency and customer care.

On the basis of these findings, it is argued that globalization – here exemplified though call centre talk – has the power to transforms linguistic practices and politeness conventions, certainly within a call centre context and possibly beyond too. Consequently, it is argued that sociolinguistic theory must be equipped to acknowledge the tremendous impact of globalization on linguistic policies, practices and conventions.

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