September 25, 2014

Critical Listening: Case Studies, Catastrophes and Analysis of Customer Service Without It

NOT LISTENINGJob ads and job descriptions frequently stress the importance of “critical thinking”, but, less frequently or rarely, “critical listening”.

Yet, critical listening can be even more important in the spheres of consultation, customer service and many other interactive services (including text-based online tech-support chats), with listening construed either literally or as the consequence of reading customer and client text to oneself.

Even at any of the universities at which I’ve taught critical thinking courses, the standard textbook focus is first and foremost on thinking critically—logically and analytically, with critical listening being assumed, but not cultivated as prerequisite or rigorously developed as an independent tool (comprising as a minimum the ability to focus on, prioritize, retain, summarize, paraphrase and correctly interpret what is being said and its logical consequences).

What follows is my first step toward ultimately redressing that imbalance by providing rules and principles of critical listening, while illustrating and exploring glaring and subtle failures to adhere to them.

Of course, it should be obvious that the consequences of inadequate critical listening can be horrendous for all concerned: the client becomes frustrated and alienated, even if not infuriated and forced into economic or logistical loss; the employee becomes stressed and worried by the fallout; and the employer or business takes a huge hit in the form of inefficiencies and unproductivity (most dramatically when it takes each employee an hour to complete the task, or worse, accomplish absolutely nothing, except lose a customer)

The Case of the Philippines

Much of the following was provoked by my consistently exasperating experiences in attempting to communicate with Philippine customer service staff in various locales, services and companies, including and mostly online. Frankly, I was flabbergasted by the pervasive inability to listen (only partially accounted for and extenuated by an occasional inability to clearly hear English, despite the employee’s being a native speaker and having a channel of online communication verbally confirmed to be electronically clear).

For example, and with no exaggeration whatsoever, I was utterly exasperated and borderline livid after failing to complete a single, simple airline booking after wasting many back-to-back hours and dollars on Skype pleading with more than a dozen service agents with more than one Philippine airline to listen and not repeat their questions tens of times (yes, tens of times). (I will offer some explanations for this otherwise incomprehensible repetition, below.)

Even after having confirmed basic information between five and ten times or more, by clearly saying “yes”, “correct”, etc., most resumed asking the same questions: “So, it is M-as-in-‘Mary’, I-as-in-‘India’, C-as-in-‘Charlie’….”; or “Just to clarify, where do wish to fly?” (after telling them countless times “Manila to Taipei” or “Manila to Boracay” and emphatically saying “yes” or “correct” every time). “So, you want to fly from Manila to Taipei?”….”Thank you for explaining that, Sir Michael (after I explained to the agent two or three times why “Sir Michael” is odd and undeserved, recommending “Mr. Moffa”,”Michael” or just “Sir”)…”Do you wish to avail (sic) our baggage allowance?” (after I had said “yes” about three times and specified that my baggage fell within the specified limits of eligibility).

Then there’s the credit card information. “To confirm: your credit card number is 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8-9..” after I repeatedly requested that the numbers be read back to me in the groups of four in which they appear in the card, e.g., “1-2-3-4, 5-6-7-8, …” in order to avoid a seventh or tenth recitation of the number, which several agents simply could not correctly repeat—despite my repeatedly reading them in two ways, e.g., “1234” as “twelve-thirty-four” and “one-two-three-four”.

In every instance with each and every agent, I had to endlessly repeat and confirm everything—name, number, and above all, the mailing address (the failure to grasp it having caused about seven rejections by my bank): “No, not ‘Delta Charlie’; it is, as I’ve now said seven times, ‘Bravo Charlie—or Boy Charlie’, for B.C., as in ‘Before Christmas.’ Also, please, please be sure to insert information into the correct, corresponding fields. Do not write “B.C.” in the street or city box [which was, in the end, as feared, one of the errors repeated].

To make the point and its importance as clear as possible, I was forced to inject into my despair-ridden efforts to communicate a desperate plea: “I am begging you—please do not, like all the agents before you, ask me the same questions over and over; we are on Skype and in a typhoon [on at least two of these occasions]; so this call is likely to be dropped at any moment [which is what happened numerous times as the hours piled up, once because of a lightning-induced blackout I warned the agent of, just as we were about to close the deal, after an hour of Abbot-and-Costello “Who’s on First?”].

I didn’t mention the tens of dollars being eaten up by these failed communications over the course of about 9 hours of tenacious efforts to book one cheap, but essential seat, with the two Philippine airlines I dealt with.

But it wasn’t just the airlines. Here’s a broader sample, all of which involved English-speaking staff:

Physician: “Yes, 500 mg, three times a day is fine.” (Said while reading a generic pharmaceutical handbook summary that stated that, after previously and thereafter emphatically agreeing (once again) that it is altogether insufficient for someone my size).

Restaurant: “What does ‘*foods with an asterisk*’ mean [printed in large letters on their menu]? Reply: “It refers to foods with an asterisk.” Me: “But what does the asterisk next to a food name mean or tell me?” Reply: “That these are foods with an asterisk.” Me: “But how are foods with an asterisk different from foods without them?” Reply: “I don’t know.” Me: “So the asterisks and the notice are pointless?” Reply: “I guess so.”

Restaurant: “Are most of the people panhandling here in the mall really in need?” (Asked of my waiter.) Reply: “It’s up to you, Sir.” (Which frequently doubles as a philosophical maxim covering replies to deep, as well as uncomplicated questions.)

Convenience store: “Would you please read this label and tell me the ingredients?” (Asked regarding an instance of the evasively microscopic labeling rampant in the Philippines, be.) Reply: ” I don’t know.” (Said before even seeing it.)

Convenience store: “Are there no grocery stores in this district, because of the risk of robberies, or the high cost of security?” (Asked of the manager, in the context of looking for garlic that his store doesn’t sell.) Reply: “It depends on the store, Sir.” (It depends on the stores that don’t exist?)

Pharmacy: “For how many days should I take this?” Reply: “Twice a day.” “May I see the instructions, ingredients and warnings or the box?” Reply: “The name is printed on the back [of the card of pills].”

Physician: “Don’t I need a second kind of medication for the secondary issue? That’s what the literature specifies.” Reply: “The first medication is very effective with the main problem.”

Travel agent: “I still need to get my visa extended, since the government office you sent me to is moving today and too busy for processing.” Reply: “But we can do it for you!” Her colleague, after I looked bewildered: “No, you sent him there for same-day-service, because he is leaving tomorrow, before our agency can process it.”

The Critical Challenges of 2nd-Language Customer Service

Turning to the task of explaining such incredible, unhelpful responses, let’s start with the most commonsense explanation: a language problem. In an era of massive outsourcing to overseas operators, agents and support staff, who include legions of non-native speakers, this can seriously jeopardize listening comprehension. This is especially likely to be the cause of the problem when seemingly competent speaking ability masks listening inability.I am certainly that way with Chinese, which I read better than I speak or hear.

In the Philippines, although English is an official language, there can be no guarantee in a specific service encounter that it will also be the first language spoken and understoond by a customer service rep. A Canadian version of that problem could arise with a customer rep who speaks decent English, but whose first language is the other official language, French.

Solution/Rule: The lesson for managers is that you must test customer-service employees for their 2nd-language critical listening comprehension abilities when they have to communicate in one, and not be misled by fluent speech, which involves a second, distinct set of skills not always proof of general and critical listening skills. In this context, “critical listening” connotes two distinct, yet interrelated things: 1. skills that are crticial to performing the listening tasks; 2. skills that engage faculties and standards of critique, assessment and interpretation of what is being heard.

In addition, it is important to allow the 2nd-language rep the leeway to cover communications with an acceptable alert to the customer: “I’m sorry, Sir, because our connection is not clear, I may have to ask you to repeat information more than once; please accept my apology in advance should that happen.” (Saying, “I’m sorry, but my English is limited, so I may have to ask you to repeat information” can work, but usually only if you are self-employed or a manager who is not being recorded.)

A second explanation of the mismatched replies to comments and questions is that it seems many customer service agents in the Philippines are programmed to recite what they already know, not think about what they need to know and are being queried about. This leads to dealing with an unfamiliar question with familiar, reliable, yet irrelevant information or suggestions, in much the way that the pharmacy counter-person’s “twice a day” did, above.

A third explanation is that in the online instances, the airline agents were all reading from the same script, which assumes the client will stick to the catechism and not inject an unexpected, premature or belated question. I noticed over and over again that, when I asked a question, the agent reverted to the previously covered question in the script for the purpose of “clarification”, e.g., “So, Sir Michael, you want to book a ticket from Manila to Taipei?”–a question recently answered just before the question out of left field. One did this even after I warned that I would be asking to speak to his supervisor if he repeated any of the current questions yet another time.

Solution/rule: Managers should train their staff to be able to recover from and otherwise deal with a deviation from the flow-charted printed script, without having to re-confirm the previously confirmed information by reading out the earlier question(s). In addition, the manager could take the radical step of liberating the staff from verbatim scripts and replacing them with a checklist of logistically and legally critical information, which should be confirmed no more than twice. One spin-off benefit is that the agent’s ears would not be inhibited or distracted by the agent’s eyes otherwise fixated on the script.

In many instances, critical listening problems create or magnify critical thinking problems, e.g., as in the restaurant asterisk case. Obviously, if you are not listening to what you are hearing, you are not going to think about it clearly either. Right?

If you put this question to most of the service reps and other staff I’ve I dealt with in the Philippines, don’t be surprised if the reply is…

…”It’s up to you, Sir.”

Next: As a follow-up to this analysis, my “handbook” of critical listening policies and principles for managers and employees.


Read more in Personnel Management

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).