As customer demands grow increasingly complex and the need for service excellence accelerates, contact centres and their agents are under immense pressure to perform accurately and quickly.
In an increasingly virtual working environment, contact centre leaders must equip their frontline staff with the tools and resources that enable them to deliver an exceptional customer experience.
While this means investing in the latest cloud technology, AI chatbots and omnichannel communications for many businesses, there is a simpler, less technical, and much more affordable resource that contact centres simply aren’t optimising right now. The NATO phonetic alphabet.
Historically, the use of the phonetic alphabet in call centres was commonplace. This simple method for clarifying communication sessions has fallen off the radar in recent years as many organisations feel modern technology makes it obsolete. On the contrary, there’s a reason why this clever linguistic tool has been used globally for many years. This post will outline why and highlight some of the reasons contact centre organisations should reclaim it as an indispensable solution for improving customer interactions.
What is the phonetic alphabet?
A phonetic alphabet is a list of 26 words that depict each letter of the alphabet. Each phonetic alphabet word begins with the respective letter of the alphabet that it represents. For example, ‘Boy’ might represent ‘B’ and ‘King’ communicates the letter ‘K’ when spoken aloud.
Also known as the ‘military alphabet’ or the ‘spelling alphabet’, the phonetic alphabet eliminates the ambiguity in spoken communication. More specifically, it was developed to clarify and avoid misunderstandings in the pronunciation of specific words or letters.
Particularly useful for military agencies and those using voice communications daily, the phonetic alphabet helps clear up commonly misunderstood phonemes such as ‘N’ and ‘M’ or ‘S’ and ‘F’. These common mistakes often lead to confusion and operational challenges, particularly in a contact centre environment.
However, some organisations or countries use different phonetic alphabets. For example, it’s common in the US to use common names and place names to identify each letter. The use of different versions of the phonetic alphabet can lead to further confusion, making the global framework somewhat obsolete. For those communicating with customers from different countries, it’s worth considering adopting a universally standardised alphabet, namely, the NATO phonetic alphabet.
What is the NATO phonetic alphabet?
Also known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, the NATO phonetic alphabet is widely used by radio or telephony technology in day-to-day communications. Initially developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to simplify verbal communications through radio or phone devices.
Like other spelling alphabets, the NATO phonetic alphabet is a set of 26 words used to represent each letter of the alphabet. It is used to eliminate misunderstandings in oral communication sessions.
The 26 code words for the English alphabet in alphabetical order are as follows:
Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu
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|IN DEE AH
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|JEW LEE ETT
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|ROW ME OH
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|YOU NEE FORM
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Using words that might be well recognised the world over, the NATO version of the phonetic alphabet takes into account the pronunciation of each word for native speakers of different languages. For example, ‘Alpha’ (used to represent the letter ‘A’) is written Alfa, and ‘Juliet’ (‘J’) is written as ‘Juliett’ to avoid ambiguity and potential mispronunciations non-native English speakers.
Brief History of the NATO phonetic alphabet
Spelling alphabets have been developed and used to clarify verbal communication since World War I. In fact, the first non-military, globally accepted spelling alphabet was initially adopted in 1927 by the CCIR (the predecessor of the ITU – International Telecommunication Union).
During World War II, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) acknowledged a need for a universal, standardised spelling alphabet that featured phonemes that were common in different languages such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. In the late 1940s, linguist Jean-Paul Vinay worked with the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) to develop a spelling alphabet with those requirements to suit native English, French, and Spanish speakers.
In the late 1950s, the NATO alphabet became universally used for military, civilian and common radio communications.
What does a phonetic alphabet do?
In the same way that morse code uses visual symbols to communicate, any phonetic alphabet aims to indicate what a spoken sound, word or letter should sound like using codes or verbal symbols.
The phonetic alphabet, also known as a voice procedure alphabet, delivers absolute clarity when communicating orally using radio or telephone technologies. The purpose of a spelling alphabet is to ensure that every participant clearly understands letters in a communication interchange, especially when speech signals could be interrupted or difficult to hear.
While it is most commonly used by military members, the police force, and airline pilots, the phonetic alphabet is also used by any organisation that regularly uses telephony to communicate with clients and customers.
Phonetic Alphabet – a basic skill for customer service and security teams?
For many years, a standardised or bespoke phonetic alphabet has been a useful tool in customer service. For modern-day contact centres, using the phonetic alphabet could be an indispensable solution for checking information and making sure customer records are populated with the most accurate data possible, helping to give context to fellow frontline agents and provide a smoother level of service.
Having to repeat oneself multiple times is one of the biggest gripes for consumers when interacting with a brand over the phone. Using the phonetic alphabet can help agents clarify and check information, reach customer records faster, and correct details to make the experience smoother for their customers next time.
While many organisations have scrapped the use of the phonetic alphabet in favour of new technologies, it’s a mistake to think one should replace the other. The phonetic alphabet should be used with new contact centre communications tools to boost efficiency and accuracy. In fact, using a spelling alphabet could support the customer service or security teams in the following ways:
How phonetic alphabet helps customer service and security teams
Recording customer information:
It’s easy to make mistakes when spelling out customer’s names, email addresses or postcodes. As agents are increasingly conscious of making customers repeat themselves, time pressure means mistakes and typos are commonplace. Using a standardised phonetic alphabet across the organisation to reiterate spellings and get details right the first time could improve the accuracy of your customer data.
Clearer information sharing:
Whether your agents need to share details of a web link to guide customers through an issue or pass on information to help them troubleshoot their query, the phonetic alphabet comes in really handy to help them clearly hear and understand. This can be particularly helpful when working with vulnerable or elderly clientele as some may have trouble hearing.
Overcoming language barriers:
If you have customers or agents whose first language is not English, comprehension can sometimes be problematic. Likewise, different accents or dialects could throw up some issues in receiving or delivering information clearly. Using the phonetic alphabet can help by providing a universal and comprehensive method to ensure accuracy in communication.
What are the benefits of using the NATO alphabet in call centres?
The advantages of choosing the NATO alphabet in contact centre communications are manifold. Here are just a few of the business benefits you might want to consider:
If your agents use the NATO phonetic alphabet to check details and deliver information, your crucial frontline staff appear professional and may be treated with more respect as qualified, skilled individuals.
The nature of the NATO phonetic alphabet means participants in a conversation must utilise attentiveness and drive better accuracy. Delivering, checking and qualifying information using the phonetic alphabet means your customer data will be cleaner and more accurate for the next user.
A smoother customer experience
Having your agents use the phonetic alphabet portrays that your team is keen to get details right the first time. What’s more, getting customer reference numbers, email credentials and postcodes correct could be a make-or-break situation for that individual’s customer journey. Getting the little details right means your customers view your team and your brand as dedicated and attentive. You can streamline the customer journey to make it slicker and more efficient for future interactions.
So, if you’re looking to build more accurate customer data, drive a more favourable reputation for your brand, and reduce human error in customer records, it might be worth implementing the use of the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Training your teams on the uses and benefits and teaching them the phonetic alphabet is arguably one of the easiest ways to improve your customer call centre service. Quick checking the details with customers significantly accurately reduces the risk of small errors that can cause drastic operational faux pas and could help your contact centre and the wider business build a successful customer-centric culture for the long term.
Originally published 09 Aug, 2021, updated 13 Jan, 2023