If you want to get ahead on the phone, don't talk Sloane

Customers now prefer to hear regional accents, reports John Sheard ghghghghghgh gngjgjgjgjgjjng
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ONCE upon a time, when we did business down the telephone, we liked people to talk proper. Now we like them to talk Yorkshire, Scottish or Midlands - almost anything, in fact, but Southern.

When the insurance firm Legal and General announced last week that it was setting up a national telephone sales centre in south Wales because the local accent engendered feelings of trust in customers, it was only the latest of many big firms to go regional.

Voices from London and the south-east are increasingly being rejected by employers in the telephone transaction business. Customers, it seems, take them to be either superior Sloanes or dodgy Arthur Daleys - not the sort of people they feel comfortable with when they do their banking by phone, or make credit-card purchases, or arrange insurance.

It is the Scots, not the Welsh, who have benefited most. Scotland is the fastest-growing location for these "call-centre" businesses. In just three years, the number of call centres in Scotland has topped the 50 mark, and includes BSkyB, the TSB phone bank and the BBC Radio helpline.

Last week the quango Locate in Scotland ran a national radio advertisement in which a man claimed that, within 15 seconds of hearing his voice, listeners established a positive mental picture of him - thanks to his Scottish accent.

The basis for this claim was research by Professor Howard Giles, a former Bristol University psychologist now teaching in the US, who has studied people's reactions to hundreds of accents.

Jeremy Taylor, UK manager of Locate in Scotland, said: "Professor Giles's research was fascinating because it showed just how accents affect not only the speaker but the listener, too.

"As you would expect, there was a great deal of snobbery involved, particularly from people who considered they spoke `perfect' English. But their own accents were just as likely to irritate listeners who found them `la-di- da'.

"The professor broke those reactions down into three sections: trustworthiness, competence, and sociability or likeability. Very few English accents score high on all three - that lovely Somerset drawl, for instance, scored very high on likeability but it did not conjure up visions of competence. London accents offended many people from other parts of the country.

"But Scottish accents came very high on the scale on all three counts. So we decided that a sort of halfway sound between Miss Jean Brodie and Rab C Nesbitt was the best voice for call-centre business. It has proved a very successful decision."

Accent was a major factor, too, in the decision to base Britain's fastest- growing bank, First Direct (Midland Bank's telephone-only operation) in Leeds. In six years there, it has grown from nothing to a staff of 2,300, handling the accounts of almost 600,000 customers. A First Direct spokeswoman, Amanda Brown, said: "When people are doing their banking, they are discussing with a stranger some of the most intimate details of their lifestyle. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the person on the other end of the phone sounds friendly, supportive and non-judgemental.

"We researched these problems very carefully indeed before deciding to set up in Leeds. The accent was a major factor. Yorkshire folk have a reputation for looking after their money and their accent is very comfortable for people discussing confidential business. In the south-east, I'm afraid, people answering the phone with a marked Sloaney accent can sound very condescending."

For the south-east and London in particular, where tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in banking and insurance in the past few years, Up North is now a major threat.