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

Improve customer and employee experience together.


March 23, 2023 | 11 Mins Read

24/7 service neon light icon and English alphabet and punctuation marks

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.

nato alphabet

What is the phonetic alphabet? 

What are the letters of 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 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.

What is a phonetic alphabet for?

For years, the phonetic alphabet has appeared around the world. The phonetic alphabet is used in the contact centre and 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 tell 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. 

Download Whitepaper: Calculating the Real Cost of a Business Phone System

What industries benefit from NATO phonetics?

As many organisations across various sectors look to improve their customer journey in the era of customer experience, ensuring accuracy and clarity in every customer interaction is critical. Here are some of the industries that might benefit from using NATO phonetics during customer calls and video meetings:

  • Banking and financial services
  • Insurance
  • Real Estate
  • Travel and hospitality
  • Healthcare

What is the NATO phonetic alphabet?

The use of different versions of the phonetic alphabet can lead to further confusion, making the global framework somewhat obsolete. The NATO phonetic alphabet is the one that many people are familiar with, starting with Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. 

For those communicating with customers from different countries, it’s worth considering adopting a universally standardised alphabet, namely, the NATO phonetic alphabet.

The NATO phonetic alphabet is a standardised, internationally recognised Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. Here’s how it came about:

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

History of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Spelling alphabets have been developed and used to clarify verbal communication since World War I. 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 was developed and later became universally used for military, civilian and common radio communications. Designed by the NATO group to help with audio clarity, this new phonetic alphabet for the UK and US was introduced in 1955.

What are the different versions of the phonetic alphabet?

One point to note is that there are still different kinds of phonetic alphabets out there.

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. 

Likewise, different institutions, armed forces and organisations have built their own spelling alphabets over the years as well.

Let’s take a look at some of the other official spelling alphabets:  

SymbolRoyal Navy (WWI)Western Front Slang (WWI)RAF Radio Alphabet (1924-56)The First Internationally Recognised Alphabet by the ICAO
AApplesAckAce, Able or AffirmAmsterdam
BButterBeerBeer or BakerBaltimore
DDuffDonDon or DogDenmark
EEdwardEdwardEdward or EasyEdison
FFreddyFreddieFreddie or FoxFlorida
HHarryHarryHarry or HowHavana
IInk InkInk or ItemItalia
JJohnnieJohnJohnny or JigJerusalem
LLondonLondonLondon or LoveLiverpool
MMonkeyEmmaMonkey or MikeMadagascar
NNutsNutsNuts, Nab, Negat or NanNew York
OOrangeOrangeOrange or OboeOslo
PPuddingPipPip, Peter or PrepParis
RRobertRobertRobert or RogerRoma
TTommyTocToc or TareTripoli
VVinegarVicVic or VictorValencia
YYellowYorkerYorker or YokeYokohama

Source: Drainfast

The NATO phonetic alphabet of the 1950s to today

To keep things simple for your contact centre team, it’s worth sticking with just one version of the phonetic alphabet. We’d recommend using the standardised NATO spelling alphabet below

Symbol Code Word Phonic
A Alfa/Alpha AL FAH
C Charlie CHAR-LEE
V Victor VIK TAH
W Whiskey WISS KEY

Source: Worldometers

How to use the phonetic alphabet in the contact centre

Illustration of people around the world talking via internet

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 themselves 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. 

Call to action banner
New research: Leading UK contact centres through change. Learn from the experiences of your peers. Read the report

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. Using a spelling alphabet could support the customer service or security teams in the following ways: 

  • When taking customer details

When taking details like a password for a customer account, getting things right the first time is important. 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 give you an item reference number that includes letters, agents need 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 “at 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 first to 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 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. 

How to meet customer expectations, manage remote agents and set staff up for success.

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 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 can’t remember the NATO alphabet, the most important thing they can do is avoid using “problem” words. Ensure that your staff are aware of terms like “N for Knife”, which can confuse. 

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

Illustration of a person fixing a 404 error on a computer

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 postcode. 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 postcode sends your team member to the other side of the country. That means wasted travel expenses and a frustrated customer. 

Call to action banner
New research: Leading UK contact centres through change. Learn from the experiences of your peers. Read the report

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 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 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. 

Using a phonetic alphabet means that you can double-check the details 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 contact your customers that you’re committed to delivering the best service. 

Your contact centre needs the phonetic alphabet.

Illustration of people in an office offering customer service support via the phone

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 using 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.

Originally published Mar 23, 2023, updated Mar 28, 2023

Discover RingCentral Contact Centre

Better customer service starts here: give your agents the all-in-one contact centre platform they need.