Do you have the right to an English-speaking representative?

By | June 11th, 2016

Catherine Webb thought she understood what the United Airlines representative told her in broken English when she called to make a reservation. She didn’t.

“I was trying to book a ticket online for my daughter and myself to travel from Bradley International Airport to Los Angeles,” she says. “I was having problems finding the correct flight so I called the 800 number for assistance.”

Webb wanted to hold her reservation with a credit card and then call back to use miles to pay for the flight. You can do that online through a service called FareLock.

“I asked the representative, who I could not understand very well, several questions while he was booking the flight, including if I could hold the flight and call back and change to miles. He said, ‘yes’ to every question I asked,” says Webb.

And you can probably guess what happened next. She called back a day later to book her ticket with her miles and was told by another representative that was impossible. “I could only cancel the ticket and there were no flights for miles available,” she says.

To add insult to injury, she found a $25 charge on her bill for making the reservation through the non-English-speaking phone representative instead of online. The foreign representative also neglected to make the correct seat reservation — placing her in an exit row, where she was not legally allowed to sit because of her age — which had to be fixed later. She asked to speak with an English-speaking supervisor but was told none was available.

Related story:   Help! United left my 13-year-old daughter in Syracuse

How frustrating.

“I am not happy with the customer service center in general. I was not advised properly when I was booking the flight, about the miles, or the $25 per ticket charge, the language issue, the exit seat and the supervisor who told me that I could not speak to anyone else at United regarding my reservation,” she says.

Yeah, I’d be upset, too.

No doubt about it, Webb had a negative customer service experience. But I’m actually surprised about the incomprehensible United representative. On my last visit to United, the customer service managers were telling me they’d quietly moved to call centers in the United States, the better for us to understand them with. I guess that didn’t last long.

Call center confusion can be funny.

But I have a serious question: Do we, as English-speaking customers, have a right to an English-speaking representative?

A right might be going too far, but on the other side of this equation, you have to wonder why any company would offer an “800” number if there’s no one you can understand at the other end. And why would you then sock someone with a $25 fee for using the phone?

Here we have someone whose entire problem was caused by a language barrier — one that is entirely United’s fault — and which is also entirely preventable.

Webb’s emails kicked out a form apology from United for “for any language barrier and seating mishap.” But she wants her $25 back and a real apology. Should I help her get one?

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  • SSpiffy

    OK you get a representative you have trouble understanding, state that and ask for a different one. If they can’t accommodate that, hang up and call back.

    And this isn’t just an offshored customer service line problem, I’ve had trouble understanding someone with an impenetrable Minnesota accent.

  • AAGK

    There is no way she was told no English speaking reps were available. Clearly there was a disconnect but it just as likely the result of a clueless agent, as a foreign agent. Or perhaps the mistake was hers? So long as airlines insist on charging $25/call, they need to make certain they are providing value there.

  • Jeff W.

    You are not really complaining about an agent who didn’t speak English, but someone whose accent was difficult to understand to the caller, especially on the phone.

    I have been on conference calls with people living in the UK. They certainly speak English, but with a few people I certainly had troubles understanding what was being said. Not sure where the remote call center for United is — India or the Philippines. But English is a primary language there as well.

    There are many reasons for overseas call centers. Cost is certainly one of the main ones. And United may certainly be moving back to the US for the bulk of the work. But she could have been calling during off-hours (where there would be less US based workers and more work shifted off shore.) Or there could have been travel disruption in the system (i.e., weather) and inquiries that did not involve disrupted plans or overflow was also shifted.

    It costs money to have all these people, US or not, sitting around waiting to answer your calls. So any company has to strike a balance between those in the US and those not. The alternative is for you to be on hold for hours. Many times, the offshore agents get it right, a few times they don’t. This was one of them, unfortunately.

  • MF

    Jeff, although you make valid points & offer insights – I can’t help wondering if you are a paid industry troll? I mean no offense by posing this question, and I am willing to be wrong, but your detailed explanations lead me to think you are at least in the industry.

  • Jeff W.

    I do not work in the industry, but I recently stayed at a Holiday Inn Express…

    Kidding aside, I do travel too much for my work. And I also have to work and staff projects where off-shore resources can be a component. On a perfect project, everyone is local and can come into the office every day. But that little thing called a budget gets in the way. So people work from home. But only saves so much. Then the dreaded off-shore options comes to play. Pros and cons galore.

    My projects are dealing with resources that you can count on your fingers (and maybe some toes.) Multiply that by what a huge operation such as an airline and you can see how difficult it is to strike a balance.

    I would love for the call centers to be based in the US. North Dakota and similar states are popular for those as the Midwestern accent is considered “neutral”. But that is expensive. And the reality. Hence the need for balance.

    If the off-shore agents continue to make mistakes, then it is more expensive to continue to use them and they will be replaced. Either by onshore resources or somewhere else.

  • English is the primary language in India? I think not! Call centers in the US don’t staff people in swing and midnight shifts? I think not! And if you have people sitting around on most nights then you are not managing staffing properly. Are you saying a major airline like United can’t do that? I think not!
    It’s reasonable to expect a minimal accent from people who’s primary job is speaking into an electronic device.

  • Jeff W.

    * English and Hindi are the official languages of India. Call centers are located across many of the largest cities in India where the residents work in various IT and customer service jobs where English is spoken. This is certainly not the case in rural areas.

    * Call centers are certainly staffed 24×7. But not at equal levels. Ever been to a 24 hour store, like a Wal*Mart? Are the same number of check out lines open at 4 AM as opposed to 4 PM? No. Why would you expect something different from call centers?

    * Managing a call center operation, especially a travel one, is quite different. Staffing levels can be a challenge. So you have x amount of people on a given shift. But when snow hits Chicago, you need more agents as more people are calling in with issues. Let’s add a storm in Denver. which requires even more. And then fog hits San Fran. You get the idea, the needs change per day and could even change by the hour.

    Now of course, you can have all these people manning the phones to account for all these scenarios. But now the weather is perfect and no one needs to call. So they are sitting around because their services are not required for that day.

  • Kairho

    Aside from the language/comprehension issue, if Ms. Webb was placed “in an exit row, where she was not legally allowed to sit because of her age” she should have had her parents involved in the booking process in the first place.

    The only age requirement is to be over 15 years old; there is no legal upper limit. This also is stated on United’s website.

  • CC Gorman

    Very interesting case:
    – writer is 15 years old at most.
    – making reservations for her small child and herself
    – using her own rewards miles and credit card
    This agent allows someone under the age of 18 to make a reservation and then puts her and her daughter in an exit row. Please advocate this case, so we can find out what United has to say for itself.

  • Rebecca

    I supervised a large corporate call center. You’re definitely spot on. I elaborate on this statement you made:

    “If the off-shore agents continue to make mistakes, then it is more expensive to continue to use them and they will be replaced. Either by onshore resources or somewhere else.”

    There’s two very interesting points here. Of course, it’s obvious to pretty much anyone that call center agents in India and the Philippines make more mistakes. This is a fact that has been quantified by people paid to quantify it. The truth is, in a good call center, they err about 10 times more than US based agents, at a minimum. That’s considered a good error rate. I’ve personally seen rates over 2000% relatively often and as high as 5000%+. Unfortunately, the cost to employ them is so much lower, that it’s STILL cheaper for the company to have overseas agents.

    This is also why you see such a strict “script” when you speak to an overseas agent. And have I provided you with excellent service today?And why anything that even remotely deviates from the “workflows” they use as a guide to the calls they receive causes such a problem. Executive management believes the solution to a high error rate among agents is to script every single word that comes out of their mouths. So they build GUIs that have a drop down at the beginning of each call to give the reason for the call. Then you move through the workflow in the GUI. If the customer has a question, changes their mind or, god forbid, has an issue that isn’t contained in the drop down, that’s when you run into problems.

    The overseas agents (and my personal, anectodal experience is that India is significantly worse than the Philippines) simply aren’t trained to deal with any issues that don’t fit into a neat little box. They’re under a tremendous amount of pressure to consistently score high “metrics”; they literally have a scorecard where they’re given a numerical score with points deducted any time they don’t use the exact script they are told to use down to the letter (they would have points deducted for using a synonym or a pronoun if that’s not exactly what the script calls for) and points deducted any time they don’t strictly follow the workflows they’re allowed to choose from. For example, if the customer has an issue not available for selection and they choose an option saying the call was “other” instead of “disrupted” to the wrong department, they’re scoring probably a zero. The idea being, the issue a customer calls in with can ALWAYS follow a workflow laid out by corporate. The executive office is incredibly, invariably arrogant in thinking that they have thought of any possible scenario and there’s just no chance the customers issues and questions won’t fit into a neat little box of the call workflows and scripts they’ve created. The employees that have never spoken to a customer in their lives are certain they know what customers want to hear and the GUIs they’ve specified workflows and scripts for will cover every possible scenario. (It’s the reason I left the industry. I actually wanted to help customers and executive management just couldn’t fathom that the people doing it and managing it every day would have ideas better than their own.)

    Now add on top of that the fact that the agents are penalized if they send calls to supervisors, and it’s a recipe for exactly what the OP is describing. The only way I have ever seen for an agent to get a guaranteed US based agent is to call the escalated supervisors (we’re talking third, fourth, fifth level supervisors). It doesn’t matter that the customer insisted on speaking to someone in the US. The overseas agent is penalized for calling. If they just call a regular supervisor, in all likelihood, they will get another overseas agent. They’re also penalized for this, not as severely, but it takes points away.

    I’m sorry for the lengthy post. You’re speaking so many truths, and I wanted to add some personal experience to back you up! And, between you and me, there is a way to guarantee you’ll get a US based agent for almost all large companies. Simply choose the Spanish option. Then press “0” to get to customer service. You don’t need to actually understand the menu. The Spanish “queue” always gets overflow calls in English when they aren’t as busy. And all of the agents are in the US. Even if you need to transfer to another department, you’ll stay in the Spanish speaking extensions. The only thing is, don’t tell them you did it on purpose – they don’t like that. When they answer the phone in Spanish, just start speaking English, sounding kind of surprised. As a bonus, these employees are usually cross trained in other departments and tend to have excellent reps. For whatever reason, the retention rate is significantly higher for the Spanish speaking employees. They tend to know what they’re doing and you won’t have to worry about a language barrier (as ironic as that is).

  • If you’re calling domestically, you have every right to an English-speaking agent. Small wonder that this has become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

  • William Leeper

    Where did your facts come from? None of these were stated in the story.

  • C Schwartz

    In article ” placing her in an exit row, where she was not legally allowed to sit because of her age” — No one under the age of 15 is allowed in the exit row. Maybe the article meant to say that the passenger and her daughter could not be in exit row?

  • C Schwartz

    Minimal accent would not allow most people with a New York accent, a Southern accent — I have a hard time understanding some US accents from native born citizens and I am native born English speaking.

  • C Schwartz

    I have done the hang up and call again; sometimes I get a less helpful agent, or one that I cannot understand, or a bad connection and I give up and hit the redial.

  • SusanV

    My guess is the woman is elderly. More likely than a teenager in this scenario.

  • CC Gorman

    I was being facetious. I just figured Chris might clarify what he wrote with regard to it being illegal for the LW to sit in an exit row. I should have just said “The blog post isn’t clear–why was it illegal for her to sit in an exit row?”
    I apologize. My post was neither funny nor helpful.

  • Jim Daniel

    You can NOT fly an airplane into any commercial International airport in the world unless you’re proficient in English.
    That said, Customer Service Reps are not Pilots! Still, if you’re doing business in an English Speaking Country, you must speak English.

    I recently had an exchange with someone (I don’t think Indian) who was at least as bad., and they absolutely refused to transfer me to a supervisor. Luckily, I was able to cancel the transaction and go to a different carrier.
    GO ELSEWHERE if they can’t or won’t speak understandable English. You may have you heart set on American, but is it worth loosing your money or worse, not having the flight you need to get somewhere for a connection?

  • AAGK

    All agents speak English. I am concerned folks, I have no idea in this case- speaking generally, throw in this kind of complaint to appeal to a prejudiced mindset in case the underlying complaint isn’t resolved. Speaking accented English is still English and an agent can be wrong with or without an accent. Adding this to a potentially legit complaint is distracting and obstructs resolution. I would never think this and would be mortified to express this even if true bc it’s still my own fault I didn’t insist on speaking with someone I could understand (whether due to accent, phone connection or stupidity- whatever)

  • AAGK

    Just to keep this balanced, I urge the folks complaining about foreign customer service to consider how many issues have been handled perfectly by these same folks.

  • joycexyz

    That “scripting” you describe is so obvious! I can very clearly explain an issue and what steps I have taken, and the agent will tell me to do exactly what I just told him/her I have already done! Very frustrating.

  • cscasi

    Thanks for the expanded explanation. I, for one, am glad you are not a “industry paid troll” on this site. You do provide valuable insight (as do many others here) and invariably, I learn new things all the time because of the interaction here.

  • JimLoomis

    It seems to me the issue here is that companies–in this case United–are willing to give up on good customer service if it means they’re saving money. Certain error rates may be acceptable to the people wearing the green eye shades, but what about the customers? “Yes, I realize we booked you on a flight leaving on the wrong day, ma’m, but our error rate is under 7.24 percent, so we’re OK with that.”

  • AAGK

    Hey, I’m from New York. No accent.

  • AAGK

    What this woman wants is not offered by the airline. If she could read English, she would know.

  • pauletteb

    If I need to use the phone, I keep asking for a supervisor till I get someone I can understand or hang up and call back. I try to use online chat when available. The syntax can be interesting if the rep isn’t directly typing/inputting from a script, but at least there’s no accent.

  • pauletteb

    I HAVE been told exactly that.

  • jim6555

    Usually I’m understanding when it comes to problems of people born elsewhere making themselves understood in America. Living in Florida,here are many times that I interact with Spanish speaking people and use a good attitude and sometimes humor to enable us to understand each other. However, my patience wears thin when dealing with non-native “English-speakers” on the other end of a help-line phone call. Sometimes it is as much a cultural problem as it is a language problem. A glaring example comes to mind. a few years ago, I called Delta Airlines to change a complicated itinerary to include travel to Birmingham, Alabama. The representative that I reached was in India. She could not understand that the Birmingham that I wanted to fly to was in the United States, not in England. Even when I told her that the city code is BHM, it didn’t help. After a few frustrating minutes, I hung up, redialed and reached a Delta rep in Atlanta. She understood what I was trying to do and knew that Birmingham was about 100 miles west of where she was sitting.

    Because of this experience and several equally frustrating with computer help desks, I’ve come to the conclusion that what the US needs is a law that requires that customer service for goods and services sold here be located within the fifty US states and that the persons answering calls in these centers must demonstrate that they are proficient in English before they can be hired. If a company wants to do business here they must provide people to help their customers who live here. If they don’t want to pay US wages, the company needs to pack up it’s wares and find customers elsewhere. I would guess that most companies will not leave and that the US unemployment rate will drop significantly once additional call centers are established domestically.

  • AAGK

    Really? Then you would call back later, right? When I get someone bad on a customer service call my cell phone reception cuts out simultaneously…

  • judyserienagy

    I don’t know about the rest of the country, but California has lots of people who don’t speak clear English. I will give it some effort and ask them to slow down and speak clearly, but some reps just can’t do this. I used to try much harder to understand, but now I just say “Thanks, I’ll need to call you back”. It’s almost comical to envision a job interview … the interviewer doesn’t speak clear English and neither does the candidate … that must be how they get hired in the first place. Kinda like really bad drivers teaching their kids how to drive; they don’t see the problem.

  • judyserienagy

    Minnesotans don’t have an accent … how can you say this??? I grew up there and can still pick one out anywhere in the world. Tho sometimes a Wisconsinite will fool me.

  • Rebecca

    I hate if you call about your TV and they want you to reset and turn the box on and off. If you tell them you’ve already done it three times, they will actually tell you to do it again with them on the phone.

  • Rebecca

    Likewise. I get all sorts of good information here.

  • joycexyz


  • John Grier

    in Australia, United’s call centre is answered in the Philippines, where they don’t speak English either.
    Just one of the reasons, United is the airline of last resort(if you’re desperate take a chance with your life & fly United)

  • Lindabator

    and you don’t think people HERE have accents? Could be Indian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, etc?

  • jim6555

    You are correct. There are people in our nation who have accents or speak in hard to understand regional dialects. However, the overall result of moving customer service to US locations would be a vast improvement compared to the current situation.

  • AAGK


  • Steven Reed Sr.

    Yes they will also with dsl trouble and restarting the router, I just allow them to follow their scripts and tell them I am doing what they say, get to the real issues quicker and is less frustrating and more often than not they really cannot tell if you have or not, also you all really need to start complaining more about the offshoring of call center employees.

  • Steven Reed Sr.

    As a former British Colony the Queen’s English is indeed one of the Official Languages of India, I would rather speak to someone from India than the Phillipines any time easier to understand.

  • Pegtoo

    ya – you betcha I do!!

  • Pegtoo

    I think I’ve told you all this before, but it still makes me laugh: I received a call on my cellphone a couple years back… strong accent, telling me about “a loan”. I told them I wasn’t interested, and to take me off the call list. They called back, imploring me to hear about “a loan Meesis Seeempson, (my last name is Simpson) your loan!” I then realized she was trying to tell my my home ALARM was going off. Nice communication skills eh?! (yep, minnesoooootan)

  • JewelEyed

    There are certain areas of New York with accents, but the bulk of New Yorkers have no discernable accent. It’s worth mentioning that there is an entire large state that isn’t Long Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Staten Island.

  • JewelEyed

    I speak Spanish, but my Spanish is so broken that I should not be providing any customer service in that language. There’s a difference between an accent and broken English, which the LW clearly indicates it was.

  • JewelEyed

    Yes, but in fact, the customer service rep should have been able to tell her that.

  • AAGK

    Because I always give my credit card information to people I can’t understand. Also, I doubt it was broken English. This woman can’t even read English bc the thing she wanted to do doesn’t exist- it is not a thing.

  • AAGK

    How do we know he didn’t. She couldn’t understand him.

  • JewelEyed

    “No” is pretty hard to miss.

  • AAGK

    If he didn’t speak English and understand the question how would he know how to answer it. Is this a joke? He either understood or he didn’t. She either understood or didn’t ask the question. We know she can’t read English.

  • AAGK

    Ring ring
    “Ola….. Spanish…”
    “I see I have reached a non English speaking phone agent. Well while I have you, could you answer some questions”
    “Si ”
    “Great, whatever that means. Can I hold a reward seat with a cc# and then convert it to miles?”
    “I’m not sure what you said but I recognize the si as yes so I am glad we can confirm this important info. I was worried I would need to be transferred. Here is my card #. Thank you.”

    This is how she claims the convo went. I hope you see why that seems ridic.

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