Even the smallest companies can buy or sell products anywhere in the world thanks to the internet and mobile devices. A London tailor can buy silks from China, while a Russia-based electronics company can sell components to Africa. The same is true of individuals.

Yet while the marketplace has become global, language is still predominantly confined to territorial borders – there is no universal language, and no, Esperanto doesn’t count. Sure, there will be those who speak two or more languages, but these will not be enough to allow them to speak to anyone, anywhere in the world. Many rely upon speakers of other tongues to have English as a second language, but this can be a wildly incorrect assumption.

Indeed, it is estimated that around 93% of all community content is in English, yet non-English speakers make up 72% of a community’s potential audience. This can have serious implications for the effectiveness of customer service, as it is almost impossible to help someone you do not understand. Worse, if there is only partial understanding during a customer service conversation, it is likely there will be a misinterpretation or misrepresentation that could lead to the loss of customers or reputation.

Some organisations, believing the pitfalls to be too great, avoid doing business with those they do not have a language in common. This is of particular concern for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Research for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that small businesses in the UK are losing out on £48 billion annually due to poor language skills. It also estimates that being able to communicate with customers in other languages could improve productivity by 3.5%.


The language of business is mobile

It is evident that there is great potential for those willing to overcome language barriers. This potential is enhanced by the continuing rise in the use of mobiles for conducting business. A recent global study by LogMeIn and the e-tailing group found that about half of all mobile users engage businesses via their mobile devices. One of the implications is that, thanks to roaming, customers can take their devices with them when they travel and interact with businesses wherever they are.

But also, more importantly, it means that customers expect to be able to interact with businesses in a number of ways, not just via a telephone call. Many now want to communicate via email, text messaging, social media or even video calls. With such a variety of communication means available, customers expect to be understood no matter which one they use.

Written mobile interaction translations are complicated by the fact that users are now in the habit of using ‘text speak’ – the shortening or abbreviating of words or sentences to comply with character quotas. Translating such prose is beyond many traditional software solutions. Even when converting conventional language, many automatic translation packages offer a straight word-for-word translation, but this often results in grammatical and syntax errors, or, at best, confusion with the messaging. The outcome is likely to be disgruntled customers who will look to take their business elsewhere.


Human translators don’t necessarily translate into good business

There are those businesses that recognise the need to effectively communicate with customers regardless of language and, as such, are hiring multi-lingual candidates. While this provides more agility in the global marketplace, here too there are drawbacks. For example, a recent report in The Economist stated that polyglots commanded a higher salary than their monolingual colleagues. Further, no business that wishes to have tight control over its staffing budget is going to employ a staff that can handle the entire gamut of the world’s speakers.


Then there is the issue of consistent messaging, as each person is likely to translate text from one language into another slightly differently. Even worse, if someone is not a trained translator they could inadvertently end up saying the wrong thing, which could damage a business. In 2009, HSBC had to launch a $10 million rebranding campaign to repair the damage done when its catchphrase "Assume Nothing" was mistranslated as "Do Nothing" in various countries, which at the height of the global recession, was not the message the bank wanted customers to hear.


Sophisticated automation for clear communication

Fortunately, there are now sophisticated automated translation platforms that enable businesses to effectively engage with their customers using mobile devices, whatever language they speak. They provide instant, real-time translations of text to reduce the costs and time involved in helping customers whose language is different to those working in a contact centre.

Such tools can be pre-programmed to identify and translate branded terms, industry vocabulary, slang, typos and shortcuts common in mobile device interactions, resulting in a higher quality conversation. Agents can also choose to preview translated text and make adjustments, if needed, before responding to a customer.

The most widely spoken languages in the world are supported on these platforms, including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese, and more are being added all the time.

Finally, customer service agents will benefit most from those tools that can automatically detect a caller’s language and provide the agility to swap a conversation into that language, allowing one agent to easily help customers from multiple countries.

Today’s connected customer, wherever they are in the world, expects to easily communicate with their favourite brands and companies on any device. A significant element to this is effective translation. Businesses that embrace this and change their customer engagement strategies accordingly, will boost satisfaction rates to retain and attract new clients. Those organisations that do not might find that their profits get lost in translation.


 Matthew Duffy is VP of Marketing, LogMeIn

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