What is Phonetic Alphabet (NATO) and How it Improves Customer Service

As the demand for excellent customer service accelerates, contact centres are under more pressure than ever. Today’s companies are investing in countless tools to serve customers. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of everything from chat bots to AI IVR systems. However, there’s another, less technical solution that your business might be missing. 

Though perhaps not as exciting as automatic call routing or collaboration tools to support agents, the NATO phonetic alphabet has a lot to offer. The phonetic alphabet helps to eliminate inaccuracies and improve customer service by ensuring that clients don’t need to repeat themselves. Since repeating details to an advisor is one of the biggest frustrations people face, this is a critical upgrade. 

The NATO alphabet has appeared in contact centres around the world for decades. However, this tool has lost some attention in recent years. Today, we’re going to explain why the phonetic alphabet is still essential to great customer service. 

What is the phonetic alphabet? 

What are the letters of the phonetic alphabet?

The phonetic alphabet, sometimes called the NATO alphabet, is a list of 26 words. There’s one word for every letter of the alphabet. When spoke out loud, each word defines and represents the letter that it begins with. For instance, you might use “Alpha” for A, or “Beta” for B. 

What is phonetic alphabet for?

For years, the phonetic alphabet has appeared around the world. Phonetic alphabet is not just used in the contact centre, but also in military situations, when accuracy is essential. With the phonetic alphabet, listeners on a call can confirm different letters without confusion. This is incredibly helpful when local dialect, or issues with call quality makes telling the difference between “B” and “D” difficult. 

There are plenty of examples of people mistaking an “M” for an “N” or an “F” for an “S” when talking to friends in day-to-day life. However, in customer service, these mistakes can quickly create frustration. If an agent mishears a customer, this can lead to inaccuracies, slower resolution times, and other mistakes. 

What is the NATO phonetic alphabet?

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

One point to note is that there are different kinds of phonetic alphabet out there. The international phonetic alphabet for the UK and US was introduced in 1955. The NATO group designed our original phonetic alphabet to help with audio clarity. The NATO phonetic alphabet is the one that many people are familiar with, starting with Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. 

Some parts of the world use their own alphabets to adhere to regional dialect and language changes. The demand for different sounds in various parts of the world created the International Phonetic Alphabet in 1988. This system, the “IPA” includes 107 letters, four prosodic marks, and 52 diacritics. 

To keep things simple today, we’re going to be looking at the NATO alphabet, and how it can support customer service. Let’s start with a quick run-down of the NATO phonetic letters:

Symbol Code Word Phonic
(pronunciation)
A Alfa/Alpha AL FAH
B Bravo BRAH VOH
C Charlie CHAR LEE
D Delta DELL TAH
E Echo ECK OH
F Foxtrot FOKS TROT
G Golf GOLF
H Hotel HOH TELL
I India IN DEE AH
J Juliett JEW LEE ETT
K Kilo KEY LOH
L Lima LEE MAH
M Mike MIKE
N November NO VEMBER
O Oscar OSS CAH
P Papa PAH PAH
Q Quebec KEH BECK
R Romeo ROW ME OH
S Sierra SEE AIRRAH
T Tango TANG OH
U Uniform YOU NEE FORM
V Victor VIK TAH
W Whiskey WISS KEY
X X-ray ECKS RAY
Y Yankee YANG KEY
Z Zulu ZOO LOO

Source: Worldometers

Using the phonetic alphabet in the contact centre

contact centre phonetic alphabet

So, how can using the phonetic alphabet help the modern contact centre? The NATO alphabet represents an excellent tool for contact centre accuracy. When an advisor for a business uses the NATO phonetic alphabet to check details with a customer, it boosts accuracy. More important, this practice demonstrates that the agent is paying attention to the customer. 

Using the phonetic alphabet demonstrates to a client that your team is keen to get things right-first-time. This means that customers are more likely to see your team as committed and professional. 

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A good knowledge of the phonetic alphabet can even make teams seem more knowledgeable. Customers who hear employees using these guidelines will assume the professionals know their stuff. In some cases, this could mean that customers are less likely to challenge contact centre agent recommendations and ideas. 

A fundamental part of good customer service will always be making sure that you probably understand your customers. While some organisations do see the phonetic alphabet as an “overly formal” tool, it provides consistent benefits to business leaders. Here are some examples of how teams can use the phonetic alphabet in customer service:

  • When taking customer details

When taking details like a password for a customer account, it’s important to get things right first-time. Clients can often feel uncomfortable giving these personal details. Getting through the process as quickly as possible will put them at ease.

  • When managing orders

 If your customers are giving you an item reference number that includes letters, it’s essential for agents to understand those letters. Putting the wrong details into a system could mean that customers don’t get what they want. 

  • To share information with customers

When passing information to customers, using the phonetic alphabet increases clarity. This is particularly important for agents dealing with elderly customers or those who don’t have the best hearing. 

  • To break down language barriers

Language and accent barriers can often get in the way of conversations. Using the NATO alphabet reduces the issues that might occur when talking to people from different regions. 

  • To improve recording accuracy

Whether you’re recording information for customer records, or compliance reasons, the NATO alphabet will help. When you’re using recordings later, there’ll be less risk that you’ll misunderstand something said. 

As the workplace becomes more remote, and agents continue to interact with people from around the world from different locations, the phonetic alphabet will become more important. Remote agents might need to connect with team members and customers from busy locations. When audio quality suffers in a conversation, it’s much harder to pick the details out of a discussion. Using the phonetic alphabet can reduce these issues. 

How to learn the phonetic alphabet

In simple terms, the phonetic alphabet clears up conversations. There’s even an international phonetic alphabet that’s universally accepted. Today’s emergency services, military units, and airlines still use these guidelines today. While some companies attempt to create their own phonetic alphabet “in the moment” this often leads to confusion. 

Having an international standard to refer to is a much simpler way of maintaining accuracy in the contact centre, or any customer service interaction. When your agents use phonetics, they demonstrate their professionalism to every consumer. 

The only caveat to using the NATO alphabet in your team, is that you need to first find a way to teach it effectively. It can sometimes be difficult to find an engaging way to show agents how to use the NATO alphabet. 

1. Give advisors a cheat sheet

There aren’t really any exciting training exercises to consider. 

You could get your agents to spell their names and other things using phonetic alphabet words. However, the easiest option will simply be to share a printout. Providing your employees with a list that they can keep on-hand during customer conversations will reduce stress. 

Over time, as your employees continue to use the phonetic alphabet, they’ll be able to remember critical words more easily. 

2. Have some fun 

Engaging advisors with the phonetic alphabet isn’t going to be easy. However, there are some ways to have fun. For instance, you could consider having weekly quizzes with your remote workforce, where you ask them to spell certain words using the phonetic alphabet as quickly as possible. 

Completing these exercises during a video conference with the team will also promote bonding if you’re trying to keep remote workers engaged. 

You could even have conversations with your employees about which words they would use for their own phonetic alphabet. This will help team members to adapt if consumers who don’t know the NATO alphabet use a different term during a conversation. 

3. Provide tips on problem words

If your employee is ever stuck in a tight spot and they can’t remember the NATO alphabet, the most important thing they can do is avoid using “problem” words. Make sure that your staff are aware of terms like “N for Knife” which can cause confusion. 

Words with “silent” letters should always stay out of the phonetic alphabet, even if your employees need to customise the terms they use at times. 

The cost of contact centre errors

The cost of contact centre errors

Learning the phonetic alphabet might not seem like an important task in today’s digitally transforming world. However, this technique is one of the best ways for businesses to ensure that they can avoid errors at all costs. Inaccuracies in your customer service have more of a negative impact than you might think. 

For instance, imagine you’re running a company that fixes internet connections. If your client calls you with an emergency, you could send an engineer to their post code. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a lot of clarity in your calls, there’s a risk that the engineer could end up in the wrong place. One wrong letter in a post code sends your team member to the other side of the country. That means wasted travel expenses, and a frustrated customer. 

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Another example of the costs that often emerge with poor clarity is in supporting customers. Perhaps you need your client to enter a code into their software so that they can access a new feature, like an upgrade to their calling plan. If they don’t understand what letters you’re saying, they could end up entering the wrong code. This leads to unhappy and stressed customers who feel as though they’re not getting the support they need. Other issues might include:

  • An inability to communicate with customers using different accents or dialects. Your customer may end up getting angry that you can’t understand them. This will lead to them feeling marginalised and unsupported. 
  • Bad reviews from customers who can’t get the right support. If clients have to repeat themselves endless times to your agents, they won’t be happy. In today’s always-connected world, it’s easy for a customer to leave a negative review that scares off future customers. 
  • More inaccuracies for your business. Whether you’re recording details for compliance purposes, or service customers, accuracy is key. Using the phonetic alphabet doesn’t just improve your customer service, it makes your information more reliable too. 

Using a phonetic alphabet means that you can double-check details that you give to your customers, or vice versa. This reduces the risk of mistakes that could cost you and your client money. It also means that you can improve your brand reputation. With the phonetic alphabet, you should your customers that you’re committed to delivering the best service. 

Your contact centre needs the phonetic alphabet

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In today’s digitally transforming world, there are plenty of ways to improve contact centre performance. Access to a cloud contact centre, so that you can maintain business continuity in any environment is a must-have. Recording and reporting features ensure that you can learn from your successes and mistakes in the years to come. You might even decide to invest in artificial intelligence so you can provide smarter service in the future. 

How to use the phonetic alphabet

However, sometimes, the biggest changes start with a few simple steps. Training your team on how to use the NATO phonetic alphabet is one of the easiest ways to improve your customer service. Checking details with customers and clients using the phonetic alphabet reduces the risk of mistakes. It means that you get all the details right the first time around, so there’s less need for repetition. 

At the same time, the phonetic alphabet demonstrates the professional nature of your team. This leads to happier customers who feel that they can trust you for an excellent level of service. 

In a world where customer experience is the key to success, make sure that you can break down the barriers of language, dialect, and accents. Use the phonetic alphabet to bring clarity to all of your conversations.

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Sunny Dhami, Director of Product Marketing for RingCentral

Author

    Sunny Dhami is the Senior Director, EMEA Product Marketing & GTM for RingCentral, the leader in cloud communication solutions and is responsible for driving and delivering the messaging strategy, GTM and positioning across the EMEA business and strategic partners. Sunny has a passion to create differentiation and value for the customer and to share this through messaging and positioning, during his time at RingCentral he has successfully led major product launches across EMEA and APAC.

    Sunny has extensive Marketing experience across SaaS, Telecommunications and Technology sectors within companies such as Vodafone, Reed Elsevier, Calor Gas and SapientNitro. Dhami is a student of Marketing having earned his BA in Business Management and following this up with an MA in Advertising and Marketing.

    In his spare time Sunny enjoys learning about tech, playing sports and travelling.