Britain learns to love a scouse accent

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The Independent Online
WOULD YOU buy a car from a man like Brookside's Jimmy Corkhill? Or life insurance from Joey, immortalised in Carla Lane's Bread? Research has often highlighted Liverpudlian accents as some of the most mistrusted in the country. Not any more. The stereotype of the scallywag scouse has been laid to rest - and there are thousands of new jobs on Merseyside to prove it.

Big employers, such as Abbey National, British Telecom, Halifax, Camelot, and Barclays, have call centres in the area, and in the past eight months HSL, Axa Direct and Capital Bank have joined them. The reason, they say, is that the public likes scouse voices. Instead of distrusting them, people feel reassured by accents which remind them of Cilla, Tarbie, Sir Paul and Ringo.

This is a turn around from research by Hays Accountancy Personnel which last year suggested that there was more prejudice against the scouse accent than any other, bar only the Brummie whine. Television programmes such as Bread, Z-cars and Brookside, coupled with Harry Enfield's "calm down, calm down" characters, were believed to influence the public's view of Liverpool as the last resort of the scoundrel.

Al Dickman, managing director of the advertising firm BDH GBWA, himself a Liverpudlian, admits he would think twice "before using the scouse accent for a car ad, because of the cliche that they all rob cars". He said: "The whining in the accent can turn people off: to many people it says you're lazy and uneducated. Television programmes too, like Liverpool One, reinforce the idea of scousers as rascals and rogues."

But many firms seem to disagree and now base their telephone support or sales services in Liverpool. The booming industry represents a combined investment of more than pounds 65m in Merseyside, and this year alone the number of people working in call centres has doubled to around 6,000.

"Our research showed us there was a very warm reception to the Liverpool accent," says John Grimbaldeston, Marketing Manager of Abbey National. "Of course, in a call centre it's vital how people come across on the phone. We don't want broad accents that would make callers feel uncomfortable, but the softer Liverpool lilt is very favourable. We encourage, rather than refine, that accent."

Paul Kerr, a customer service manager for Vertex, another company which opened a call centre in Merseyside this year, echoes the point. "Scouse accents come very high in customer appreciation. In call centres, all customers have to go on is pitch and tone, the verbal presentation. So an accent can be pivotal to business success. And people simply relate to scousers."

A report on call centres for the Mersey Partnership this month concludes the "soft regional accent is seen to be friendly, and could be helpful in building relationships."

Berenice Mahoney, a lecturer in psychology at University College, Worcester, explains the differing responses to the Liverpool accent. "There's normally a dual reaction: first, an assessment of social status, then inversely proportional, the social attractiveness.

"The so-called third-class urban accents - Brummie, cockney, Glaswegian or scouse - might suggest a lower social status, the usual stereotype. But they suggest an attractiveness: kind, generous, honest and fun. It's obviously that attractiveness which will help companies sell their services."

John Peel, one of the most famous voices of Merseyside, collected an OBE from Buckingham Palace on Thursday. "People, including Prince Charles, recognise my accent more than my face. It has been an advantage in radio, because it's distinctive, I suppose.

"But when I was living in the United States years ago, driving around west Texas trying to sell insurance in little towns, people found my voice very amusing. It didn't help sell insurance, but I was quite popular."

The accent is, though, just one reason for the growth of Liverpool's call centres. There are many empty, large premises, such as the former Bryant and May match factory, which have been used to house the large numbers of staff needed for the centres.

The area also receives many grants making it very attractive to investors. It is one of the European Community's Objective One areas, and benefits from the Single Regeneration Budget and the Estates Renewal Challenge Fund. Investors' costs are offset by what the Mersey Partnership report calls this "cocktail of funding".

A third of initial capital costs, many recruitment and training expenses and some of the first two years' rental costs, can all be met by various grants. Employment costs are also lower in Liverpool. The hourly rate for a customer service operator in Liverpool is two thirds of that in London.