Multilingual Call Centres

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Close your eyes and imagine a world where 30% of people around you don’t speak English in the home…and now imagine that you’re an executive at a company eager to acquire and retain new customers. You need look no further than cities like Sydney or Melbourne, where almost a third of residents prefer to communicate in a foreign language. They will reward you with better conversion rates, more repeat business, and higher customer satisfaction and advocacy. And the only catch is you need to service them in their own language.

If you had any doubts about the potential size of the market, consider that more than 4 million Australians speak a Language Other Than English (LOTE) at home, and there are more than 200 online, radio, TV and print media nationally that cater to non-English-speaking people.

Employee diversity has been considered best practice for many years, however linguistic diversity in the contact centre environment still remains a mystery. Managers in contact centres shy away from multilingual customer service because they find it difficult to monitor a call they cannot understand, and because they cannot control the quality of translated scripts. If a company is only receiving a few calls per month in a particular language, the typical response is to use a telephone interpreter for those ‘dire’ cases.

Telephone Interpreters vs. Bilingual Agents

Up-take of telephone interpreter services in Australia continues to grow in line with increasing immigration numbers, with the languages in highest demand being Mandarin, Arabic, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Korean, Persian, Turkish, Spanish, Greek and Russian. Telephone interpreters are indeed the ideal solution if a company is only receiving a few calls a month in a particular language. For example, if a non-English speaking patient presents themselves to their GP, an interpreter can be conferenced in via speaker-phone. However, once the calls start numbering in the thousands per month, the financials simply do not stack up and a more practical approach is to provide bilingual customer service agents. The advantage of providing a multilingual service, rather than a telephone interpreter service, is not only a more pleasant customer experience, but if we compare the costs of each customer interaction, the cost differential is substantial.

For every “average handle time” for a bilingual agent customer interaction, the time spent on a telephone interpreter is at least double, because everything the customer says is repeated by the interpreter. That is not to mention the one to two minutes required to locate and conference in the interpreter.

The resources required for a telephone interpreter call are two people (the interpreter and the company’s English-speaking customer service agent). A bilingual agent reduces this resource requirement to one. When adding the costs of a highly qualified interpreter, the additional resources and the amount of time taken, the telephone interpreter’s costs are more than three times the cost of bilingual agent services.

For example, the cost differential for the same 5000 Mandarin-language calls would equate to $155,000 for a telephone interpreter and $39,000 for bilingual agent services (approximate numbers). The savings speak for themselves.

There is no question that a direct customer interaction, rather than a three-way interpreter call, results in a more pleasant customer service experience. The agent is able to bond one-on-one with the customer, increasing the chances of a sale or collection. The bilingual agent is also trained to use the correct terminology for the industry and product they are dealing with. They have pre-translated scripts for product disclosures, for example, which enable swift and accurate explanations to the customer. It is difficult for even the best interpreter to capture every word in these disclosure statements. And when the stakes are high for big-ticket financial and insurance products, it is essential to get it right.

The same applies to Government, where the ability to successfully negotiate an income tax instalment plan or child support payment might hinge on effective communication in the customer’s own language.

In certain industries, such as health, the consequences can be devastating if symptoms are not accurately communicated. With the rise of “tele-triage” to deflect some of the burden on the overloaded public hospital system, a multilingual service is a desirable complement to the current telephone interpreter approach adopted by most health organisations.

Appreciating Cultural Differences

When choosing multilingual call centre services, the destination chosen should show an ‘inclination towards the client culture and…adequate cultural knowledge.’ Rather than managers avoiding the incoming and ‘unfamiliar’ calls, multilingual services can actually provide callers with the comfort of a ‘local sound.’ 

When comparing bilingual services to the international markets, the Japanese customer service environment was always a source of amusement when female customer service representatives would raise their voice an octave as an expression of politeness when speaking to a customer (I found myself sub-consciously doing the same after a while).

Then there is the Middle Eastern propensity to speak loudly and aggressively even when there is nothing to argue about – in fact, often a higher volume interaction is a sign of openness and friendship between two people. Imagine speech analytics software, which detects emotion in a customer’s voice, going off the charts with certain segments of the population!

Multicultural marketing experts note that the Vietnamese market in Australia is very sensitive to links with the government in Vietnam. For an airline promoting flights to Ho Chi Minh City or a telecommunications company offering special call rates, this could pose a potential pitfall if a customer is caught unawares. Most of the Vietnamese who fled the country during the Communist takeover after the Vietnam War do not recognise the name “Ho Chi Minh City”, and will only refer to the city as Saigon. In fact they may ban companies that refer to Saigon as Ho Chi Minh.

When it comes to ethnic markets, surnames are not necessarily an indicator of a customer’s language preference: one company’s efforts to up-sell an offer into the Greek and Italian communities backfired when they selected Greek and Italian-sounding names from their customer list and began outbound calling in those languages. Many customers felt alienated and complained, since they didn’t speak these languages after all. A better approach is to have customers nominate if they have a language preference other than English at the point of sign-up.

Translating Multilingual Service into Numbers

The same lessons in multilingual service can be applied in the B2B environment, if Australian companies are targeting international markets. Research by independent research firm Common Sense Advisory concludes:“When the manufacturers offer post-sales technical support in the language of the country where they sell the products, more than 80% of our eight-country sample is more likely to buy that solution.” Of course some international markets are more receptive to English than others, such as Scandinavian countries, but a recent survey showed just “5% of the Japanese and 7% of the Chinese respondents said they were very comfortable buying in languages other than their own.”

In my experience, providing a call centre in the customer’s language can increase conversion rates by double. And since many ethnic communities are close-knit, word-of-mouth referrals by customers, once acquired, create a multiple sales effect. Continuous post-sales service in-language is also directly correlated with repeat business at levels beyond the standard in the wider English-speaking marketplace.

In-house or outsourced?

If you are not confident executing a multicultural/multilingual service strategy in-house, consider outsourcing to the experts, or hiring consultants to assist. If embraced, the cultural differences can certainly make the workplace a more fun, tolerant and interesting environment that will bring opportunities to your company and the wider community.

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Last updated on: May 8, 2023