There is an alternative to running an in-house, 24-hour help desk, which was used to great effect by one of my previous employers. We had a head office in the town I lived in, but there were also offices in Seattle in the United States and a place called Wollongong in Australia.


Our office’s multiple locations meant that we covered the entire globe 24 hours a day by people working normal office hours, which was absolutely marvelous in theory, but in practice it revealed problems that weren’t all related to time zones.

The problems weren’t all with the equipment. Many were due to language barriers and the type of shorthand notes that people made on support tickets, which weren’t always understood by the next person to look at the log.

One memorable misunderstanding arose from the simple fact that the best-known maker of clear adhesive tape in Australia shares a name with the best-known brand of condoms in the UK. Terminology in common usage in Seattle is sometimes meaningless in Bournemouth, and not forgetting the ever-popular misunderstanding between the meanings of “Fanny” in the United States and Britain.

The problem was always to try to use terminology that had the same meaning in all three locations, something that is harder than you might think. One of the most regular requests was to speak to “The Australian-sounding guy I spoke to earlier” -– the caller could not remember the person’s name but how many Ozzies do you have in your office anyway? We didn’t know our colleagues; all we had to go on was the name in the log, and we couldn’t always even tell if they were male or female!

The answer to this was very careful and noncolloquial note taking. We resolved the vast majority of queries on the first call; those that took more detailed work needed to be logged carefully, taking screen shots and file samples as necessary.

Sometimes we were asked questions that the other offices were able to deal with easily, such as, “Are there any good Polish restaurants in Seattle?”

Now, with the best will in the world and only Google for guidance I did not find myself able to comment. I could read information from a Web site, but as for a personal recommendation, I was as much in the dark as they were.

I realized that regular callers to our support line were accustomed to calling at around the same time and being connected to the same center. In this world of highly mobile workforces nobody ever commented on the strange accents; go into any pub in Britain and you have more chance of being served by an Australian backpacker than by an English person. People calling from the deep south of the United States thought we were from Connecticut; those from the northern states thought we were German.

The way to make global support work well is to ensure that the communications are good. A handover call at the end of the shift is essential, so that the new team coming on stream gets a heads-up on the current crop of problems. A voice call feels better than an e-mail, as you get to make proper link with the other team and build a kind of rapport that is second only to actually meeting them. With the distances involved, this isn’t a practical option.

What ideas do you have for making sure that remote colleagues don’t get the wrong end of the stick?

Have you ever had a hilarious language misunderstanding? I’d love to hear about it.