Be Careful of Those Assumptions

Along the line of a previous “Perception is Reality” article, I have a quick li’l example of this at work…

I was running the Customer Service organization for Aurora Loan Services in Nebraska (Lehman Brothers mortgage-servicing subsidiary) and similar to most call centers, we handled both English & Spanish calls in-house.

For any language other than those two, we would use the services of an outside vendor (in this case, AT&T Language Line) with whom we would establish a 3-way call with the interpreter serving as the middle man.

These translator calls are quite expensive to the company.

Besides paying a hefty fee to the vendor…it was like taking a taxi cab (flat fee upfront for accepting the call or getting in the cab, then another $2/min or a mile)…these calls lasted at least twice as long as normal calls.

Plus, I still had one of my people on the call the entire time.

(Note: I remember when I was building the Asian Language CitiPhone Unit in Fort Lee, NJ in the mid-90s. We had a growing presence of customers with an Asian language as their only, or preferred, means of communications.

It was not practical for San Antonio to be able to supply enough bilingual reps & supervisors to support this as an on-going concern.

So I built it in NJ, close to our Fort Lee branch. We initially staffed both Mandarin & Cantonese, then later added Japanese.

When I was doing some competitive research about how various banks handled requests for customers to speak directly to their branches, I clearly recalled calling Wells Fargo, who, at that time, was primarily California-based, I was shocked at how many different languages they supported in-house…Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese & several others, including Urdu!

BTW, it’s the official language of Pakistan.)

Anyway, we were able to support Spanish-language calls even in Scottsbluff, Nebraska (nowhere near any type of large or even, medium-sized city). Combined population for Scottsbluff & neighboring Gering was ~22,000.

There were times when our rather-thin bilingual staff was facing enormous pressure (due to scheduled/unscheduled absences, heavy volume or unusual call arrival rates) & the Spanish queue would grow (increasing the anticipated wait time for a Spanish-speaking rep).

And even though we had an upfront prompt for our Spanish-speaking callers (“Oprima dos por el Español”), many of the calls handled by the “Spanish gate” were internally-transferred from our English-speaking reps.

So, during those times when the “Spanish gate” was getting killed, we would instruct our reps to NOT transfer Spanish calls internally, but, rather, utilize AT&T Language Line as a 3rd party translator.

(Note: I would often catch hell from senior management if, God forbid, we exceeded the monthly budgeted amount for these AT&T Language Line calls, especially if they noticed “excessive” Spanish usage.

One month, after I got really tired of all this micro-managing 🐃💩…I mean, c’mon, we’re delivering superior business results & now you’re merely trying to poke holes into something, somewhere, solely for the sake of finding a negative thingie so you can flex your stupid-ass “boss muscles”…I finally had it and said, “You’re breaking chops over a coupla hundred dollars here. Seriously now…

…I just delivered this corporation over $300,000 in annualized revenues…bottom line…by implementing a brand-new program to reduce “goodwill fee reversals” by $25,000 a month!”

Of course, Terry Gentry, Sr VP, tried to burn a hole through my forehead with his Superman vision, but I employed my Star Trek deflector shields & he would up setting his own desk on 🔥!!!

C’mon, now, raise your hand now if you cracked a li’l smile there!!! 🤪

🙋🏻‍♂️  🙋🏽‍♀️  🙋🏽  🙋🏼‍♂️  🙋🏼‍♀️  🙋🏿  🙋🏽‍♂️)


This (using AT&T Language Line for Spanish calls) was a very expensive option to use & we only did it in those extreme cases when the anticipated wait time for one of own Spanish-speaking reps was truly unacceptable.

In reality, a super-long Spanish queue, even for a couple of hours, wouldn’t greatly impact our overall performance numbers. We did it solely to soften the blow on our Spanish-language callers.

Didn’t happen very often, but when it did, we’d turn off the “internal transfer spout” (that would have English-speaking reps manually transfer Spanish-speaking customers to Spanish-speaking reps). It happened, maybe, once or twice a quarter & lasted usually for less than an hour.

We utilized our electronics signage boards (a GREAT enhancement for call centers) to communicate this temporary procedural change to our people.


Seemed clear enough, no?

One day, when we had to invoke this emergency process, I was walking around the floor. I knew very well where all our bilingual reps sat (we didn’t have enough to form a fully-dedicated team) so they were scattered throughout the floor.

Sometimes, all it would take is a couple of bilingual reps “being distracted” (busy doing research or making callbacks instead of handling incoming calls) to suddenly create a queue in the Spanish gate. A friendly reminder from me (usually, my hovering over the rep would do the trick…I very seldom used our electronic cattle prod, ”The Convincer”) & magically, the queue would soon disappear.

(Yes, I fully realized that ALL reps need to handle some research & do their callbacks at times. I would just encourage them to first take a peek at the message board – – where we would post the status of our various gates – – then make an informed decision as to whether now was the right time to do something other than handle incoming calls.

For example, we would transfer “refinance requests” to our Sales Unit in St. Louis. The program was unbelievably successful for the company…and for our reps as well as they earned $50 for every referral that turned into an actual refinanced loan.

But sometimes, the queue into the Sales Unit was “too large” & I didn’t want my reps & the customers waiting on hold for too long before finally reaching a Sales rep.

I asked my people to take a look at the message board where we always posted the different queues in the bottom left corner of the screen.

If there were more than 3 calls holding for St. Louis Sales, then they were instructed to take a callback request for the customer.

We’d fax those forms to St. Louis & the rep would still earn $50 if the refinance application was submitted & approved.)

OK, back to the Spanish calls…

In walking around, I came upon one of our bilingual reps speaking with an AT&T translator.

Now, while there are some instances when a bilingual rep actually needs to engage AT&T Language Line for a non-Spanish language call (German, Portuguese, etc.), it would only occur when a bilingual rep is handling a call from the “main gate” & the customer doesn’t speak/prefer English nor Spanish.

But when the Spanish gate is “blowing up”, we change the bilingual reps’ “call skilling” so that they‘re unable to handle main gate/English calls. They should only receive & handle Spanish calls.

So how could a bilingual rep (let’s call her “Maria”, in this case) be using AT&T during these “emergency times”??? (Note: This is NOT Maria Vicharra Villagrana!!!)

I went over to a supervisor phone to “tap into” (silently monitor) the call.

Yes, Maria (a Spanish-speaking rep) was using AT&T FOR A SPANISH LANGUAGE CALL!!!

She spoke Spanish. She handled Spanish calls all day (along with English calls when there was no queue in the Spanish gate).

My brain started to fry.

Instantly. I could hear those few cells burning away like bacon cooking!

As such, I gently & calmly asked Maria’s Team Leader to “listen in” & find out what she was doing & then, pls address the situation appropriately with Maria.

Later, Tracy Kaufman came into my office with a report.

By this time, the bacon had been removed from the heat & was already draining nicely on those paper towels.

“She said that you instructed the reps to use AT&T for Spanish calls up on the message boards.”


“Yes, I know, Tracy, but I added to not transfer any calls internally.”

“I know, but apparently, she took that first line literally!”


💣  💥    🧨   ☄️   🚨

Tracy had already straightened out the miscommunication with Maria. I’ll assume full responsibility for the “misinterpretation” of a pretty-clear message.


(Pls Note: When you guys are reading the various stories in this blog, pls start with the 1st word in the upper-left corner. After you finish reading that word (usually identifiable by a space, comma, quotation marks or period), pls proceed to your right for the next word. Continue in that fashion.

Upon reaching the end of the line at the right, shift your eyes to the line immediately below it & start reading again, from the left to the right.

If there are several blank spaces, pls continue to drop down until you come upon another line with words.

If you happen to read something along the lines of “As always, thank you so very much for listening!” and there are no more words nor lines underneath, you have reached the end of that particular piece.

Amen. 🎚)

A couple of months later, we discovered that Maria was recording a new VoiceMail greeting.

Every morning.

But unlike some people’s greeting that says, “Hi, this is Suzy & today is Monday, June 17th. I’m in the office today, but unable to…”, she recorded the same exact VM greeting every morning.

In fact, I previously provided every rep with the standard VM greeting to use that I wrote for them (in accordance with guidelines received from Legal & Compliance).

When asked why, she said, “I don’t know. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do!”

“But if it’s the same exact…”

Never mind.

A few weeks later, I traded Maria to the mailroom for one of their bright, energetic people who I thought would make a very good rep. Maria was able to keep her salary & her grade level. This literally saved her job as she wouldn’t be able to meet the requirements for a Customer Service rep (as borne out when we “straight-skilled” her for English calls only & her Team Leader was able to listen to a number of her calls…which were pretty poor, at very best).

I always try my best…and force my managers to do the same…when we have a person who is struggling.

Normally, we’ll provide a lot of one-on-one training & call reviews, assign a senior rep to buddy up, have the rep note every call with which she believes she had a problem during the day & offer as much constructive feedback as possible.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll try to find the employee a less-demanding job somewhere else in my organization or the company (perhaps, as a clerk or support person).

I hate to release people & if/when I do, it’s usually for job abandonment (they got a job elsewhere or moved away, but never gave us notice). Remember, outside of work, these people still have lives & families & responsibilities so if I can still retain the employee while filling a legitimate need of the company, I will.

OK, everyone, now pls pay very close attention!

Here it comes!



As always, thank you so very much for listening!

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