Voice concerns

By Richenda Wilson
The rise in compensation claims for damaged voices in other industries is alerting call centres to how their staff's speech habits have far-reaching health as well as sales implications.

Teachers have long understood that it is essential to look after your voice. Keeping control of 30 boisterous six-year-olds is no mean feat and often involves raising your voice to make yourself heard. As a result many teachers find they suffer from voice damage, ranging from croakiness to coughs, breathing difficulties and pain.

In the UK, compensation claims have already been won by teachers who have damaged their voices and had to retire early; now, cases are starting to emerge in other industries. The California Workers Compensation System has said that although claims for voice damage so far make up a small fraction of work-related compensation cases, it expects them to grow "exponentially over the next decade" as more people use their voices to do their jobs and work with voice-activated computers and the like.

As early as 1997, the UK banking union Bifu (now Unifi) in its report Occupational Voice Loss: A Negotiator's Guide described voice loss as "an issue that cannot be ignoredit could become a massive problem in years to come".

The telemarketing industry needs to watch this area closely, warns Sue Froggatt, director of training company Voice Value. "It's an area that nobody has really thought of," she says, adding that generally people use voice training as a way to make their sales pitches more effective, though she is increasingly hearing from health and safety managers of call centres who are keen to learn how to avoid damage.

Froggatt points out that voice damage is most likely to occur when people are speaking outside their natural range. Women, for example, tend to lower their voices in an effort to sound more authoritative and this is where problems can start to occur. These can be exacerbated when operators are working in an environment where poor sound-proofing means they have to strain to be heard.

However, there are simple steps that can be taken to minimise the risk of damage. These include self-help steps such as breathing and warm-up exercises, similar to those used by professional singers and actors before a performance, as well as steps that can be taken by call centre managers to improve the working environment.

In December 2001, the Health and Safety Executive issued new advice on call centre management, which includes tips on how to reduce stress and voice damage. Call Centre Local Authority Circular 94/1 contains the following advice: to reduce the risk of straining the throat, opening greeting scripts should be broken into shorter segments, giving call handlers frequent micro breaks while callers respond to their questions; callers should be allowed to drink at their workstations to lubricate their throats; call handlers should be encouraged to drink water or caffeine-free drinks to maintain hydration and to stretch their neck and shoulders to relieve tension.

The HSE circular also points out that the risk of voice problems is greater when suffering from a cold and suggests that staff in these circumstances should be assigned to tasks that do not involve speaking on the telephone.

A report from Voice Value published in 2002, entitled Occupational Voice Damage: Background and Prevention, offers further advice to call centre managers on this issue: "Have realistic targets that reflect the quality of calls rather than just the quantity (this will ease the pressure on staff and reduce call-backs); consider adding flexibility to scripts (the monotony of having to repeat the same questions, while maintaining a polite state, can lead to mental tenseness, stress and anxiety); try to reduce stress in general, as it increases the tension of the vocal muscles; monitor the amount of close supervision (a side-effect of the stress caused by close supervision and eavesdropping is vocal disorders)."

The report adds that sore throats tend to occur more frequently among new staff, so it suggests that training managers consider an induction programme that allows new handlers to become accustomed to the job gradually.

Speech-friendly office

Voice Value also points out that environmental factors can have an impact. It suggests that managers should make drinking water readily available; provide a dust-free environment with good ventilation; use a humidifier; have a no-smoking policy; have sufficient space between workstations so voices can be kept at a comfortable level; and keep background noise levels down. Furthermore, workstations should be flexible enough to enable staff to sit comfortably, and headsets should enable them to use their natural voice level.

The report also contains a section aimed at call handlers, suggesting techniques to lower the risks of voice problems. These include learning to breathe properly; maintaining a flexible and well-balanced posture; warming up the muscles involved in speech; learning how to relax properly; endeavouring to use your natural pitch; and drinking plenty of water.

Various things can cause inflammation of the larynx, so these should be avoided, suggests Voice Value. They include: smoking; spicy foods; foods that thicken saliva such as chocolate and foods high in starch; dairy products (which can increase catarrh); caffeine and alcohol; and various analgesics, antihistamines and steroids.

Some call centres are better then others at adopting good practice and training staff to use their voices well. Richmond-based call centre agency The Listening Company, for example, is researching all areas of voice protection, says marketing director Martin Williams.

"One proven technique to aid posture and breathing is the Alexander Technique," says Williams. "The training department will shortly be offering voluntary courses to the calling staff.

"The Listening Company also offers all staff the use of modern headsets, which create a quiet bubble to converse in, therefore preventing staff from raising and straining their voice on a busy and loud calling floor."

Voice training is not only useful for avoiding damage. There is a lot that can be done to make voices more effective and engaging over the phone. The same rules apply about equipment and sound proofing - an operator who is straining or uncomfortable will not be working at their peak - and there are various elements of the voice that can make a difference.

"At present the main focus of voice work in training is aimed at improving sales, such as articulation, diction, tone, pitch and inflection," adds Williams.

"Our trainers come from a variety of backgrounds and some have spent time at drama school where they have been taught how to use the voice to best effect. We are developing specialist training modules that focus specifically on the voice - things like breathing, mechanics, protection, exercises and other complementary work on diction and articulation."

Paul Gill, product strategy consultant at Broadsystem, explains how this telemarketing agency approaches training, breaking voice skills down into pitch, stress/emphasis, speed, clarity and volume.

Pitch involves learning to modulate the voice level so that we do not sound too high-pitched or squeaky: "Famously Margaret Thatcher had voice coaching to stop her voice sounding too shrill," says Gill.

Stress clarifies meaning and adds warmth and interest. "Say the sentence 'I never said you stole the money' over a few times, each time emphasising a different word. See how the meaning changes each time."

Speed is important as speaking too fast can make the caller incomprehensible while very slow speech can be irritating. "Aim for the middle ground," advises Gill, "and check your speed by taping yourself and listening to how you sound.

"Clarity is vital in enabling the customer to understand your message - watch that you don't roll words into each other or slur the sounds," he adds. "And try to maintain an even volume and not allow your voice to tail off at the end."

Regional accents can also have a bearing on how seriously a call handler is taken. Research has shown that people with Northern and Scottish accents are deemed to be more trustworthy than those with Southern accents, which goes some way to explaining the popularity of those areas for call centres, especially those used by financial services companies. Unfortunately, the Birmingham accent has been found to be one of the least popular in the UK.

However, voice clarity is more important than accent, argues Christine Mabbott, an account manager at call centre operator Teledynamics, adding that unusual accents can work to the advantage of the call handler.

"We had a man from New Zealand working on Yorkshire Electricity consumer calls," she explains. "He was one of the highest achievers on this campaign as consumers would often start up conversations with him about his country and the cricket and so on, giving him the opportunity of opening the door where other sales people had been left in the cold."

Voice echoes

And Froggatt at Voice Value has an interesting suggestion that would allow call handlers from Birmingham to take heart. She cites research that shows people are generally happy to speak to someone with a similar accent to their own and challenges companies that create call management software to develop technology that can identify callers from their area code and automatically channel them towards an operator with a similar accent. Although this might create logistical problems, these could well be outweighed by an increase in sales.

If this procedure was adopted alongside thorough training on potential hazards to voice health and clarity, the high rates of absenteeism prevalent in the industry could be reduced and call centres might greatly increase their effectiveness.

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