India offers new business opportunities

India stood tall amidst the financial ruins of 2008 in the company of only a few other countries. A gross domestic product growth rate of 6.7%, braving global recession, had a subtext that not many in the language industry seem to have understood. For one thing, this growth was achieved backed by a strong domestic demand, not to mention the demographic composition of the consumer.

In an economy that opened its doors to the world a little over two decades ago, this demand is being met, even today, not only by Indian companies but also by companies from every conceivable corner on the face of this earth. And while reaching out to the Japanese in Japanese and the Chinese in Chinese forms part of every communication strategy in every boardroom worth its salt, the thought of reaching out to Indians in Indian languages only crosses that rare business mind. Perhaps there are far too many Indian languages for anybody to care.

But consider this: not very long ago, the largest number of the Mercedes-Benz cars in the state of Maharashtra were sold neither in Mumbai, which is the financial capital of India, nor in Pune, a vibrant city known for its bustling industrial activity. They were sold in the little-known town of Aurangabad, where the predominant language is Marathi. A group of people from Aurangabad bought, not one, not two, but a whopping 180 Mercedes-Benz cars in one go. Similarly, even the close to 100 million mobile phones that Indians buy every year are bought not always by those who speak English but increasingly by those who speak one of the many other prevalent Indian languages.

Close to 72% of India’s population lives in rural areas, not exactly the best of places to find people with the most impeccable of English language skills. Statistics show that the number of English speakers in India stands at only a little over 11%, and although India ranks fourth in the world with 81 million internet users, that number is barely 7% of India’s total population. The remaining 93% of the people are unable to use the internet not because it has not reached them, but because for the most part it is not accessible to them in their language. Reality actually suggests that the business world is speaking to India in a language that it does not quite understand or use by choice.

Let us say that one Mr. Satish Kumar, a Hindi-speaking gentleman from the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, wants to buy a car. He starts scanning through newspaper advertisements and the many offerings that dot the landscape of any Indian city, in the hope of acquiring more information about cars and the current deals offered. To his not-so-utter surprise, they are all in a mixture of Hindi and English, better known in India today as Hinglish. He then decides to check out the internet, only to find that not only are the websites of most companies available only in English, but even websites that review products (cars, in this case) are also mostly monolingual (read: English). He chooses to ignore this linguistic marginalization and goes ahead and buys a car. He is pleased and excited about his new purchase and decides to spend some time that evening reading the manual of his car so that he can get to know it a little better. But alas! Even the user manual is in English, a language that he barely manages to understand.

There are millions of Mr. Kumars out there buying a great number of products, and their linguistic plight only points to a dichotomy. While manufacturers the world over want a share of the Indian pie, not all of them are making an effort to reach out to Indian consumers in their languages. Most attempts at using Indian languages are mostly limited to advertising. However, from automobiles, electronics and medicines to food, shelter and clothing, the average Indian is buying something. Billions of rupees are being spent on the best of products, but product documentation is not always available in regional languages.

No offense meant, none taken. We Indians get what we seek. If the globe-trotting, English-speaking Indian gives the impression that India speaks English, the business world can be forgiven for its folly. What is at best a colonial hangover is precariously deceptive in its very essence. And though the well-educated English-speaking socialites of every New Delhi and Mumbaiesque city might come across as representative samples of markets that global majors would like to tap, cities do not make India. Villages and smaller towns do, and so do the millions who throng to cities to earn their livelihood, only to repatriate most of their money back home. The real consumer is therefore the ordinary Indian whose buying power is increasing with every passing day and who is not necessarily well educated and certainly not always at ease with English. Indian consumers are waiting to be pampered and addressed in their own language. So what does that mean to language service providers (LSPs)? Well, to begin with, it means newer ways to tap business opportunities. Of course, this is not ready business. Your existing and potential customers who might have an eye on the Indian market are not even aware they need to speak to Indians in Indian languages and perhaps the Indian consumer doesn’t believe in any such luck either. But that is where the opportunity actually lies.

There is a popular anecdote that makes the rounds in Indian management schools. A CEO of a popular footwear company, it seems, sent his sales head to a certain country in Africa to see if there was any potential for this footwear in that part of the world. After some extensive traveling and discussions with various people, the sales head submitted his report that said there didn’t seem to be too much of a demand because not many people in that country wore footwear in the first place. Putting the report down, the CEO said, “Well, it looks like a great market to me! All you need to do is educate people about the benefits of using footwear and then introduce our brand.” In under a year, the company’s revenue shot up by a good 200% with this African country making the single largest contribution.

Even if this is, perhaps, only an anecdote, if used as an analogy, there are some thought-provoking lessons to be learned. At a time when LSPs are struggling to remain competitive, retain customers and offer greater value, this could open up a potentially untapped market of over 1.2 billion people. The over two dozen official languages that the people speak can be used as an effective tool to make significant inroads in the public psyche. Today, it is rare to find a country that has nothing to do with India. Businesses in your country are either buying from India or selling in India. LSPs only need to first identify and then initiate a dialogue with such customers. A novel sales pitch has to be devised to drive home the importance of making documentation available in Indian languages when selling in India. Thanks to technological advancements, even Indian scripts are compatible with the various software and technologies that LSPs use, just like any other language. And then again, it is rare to find a country where Indians have not settled.

The good news is that LSPs do not need to start from scratch. The winds of change have begun to blow. Slowly but steadily, businesses are waking up to the idea of speaking to Indian consumers in Indian languages. Even if they form a small majority, their number can be compared to practically only a handful a few years ago. A world-renowned tractor manufacturer from the private sector chose to translate all its online training modules and sales literature into all major Indian languages. Farmers and dealers in villages being their target market, they thought it would help them sell more. And it did! Even the public sector is not lagging far behind. The MCX Commodity Index is now available in 11 Indian languages, thereby making it possible for more Indians to use it.

However, this is only one side of the proverbial coin because we are still talking about LSPs finding potential customers in only those who are looking at entering the Indian market. But what about Indian companies that are looking to go global? According to the SME Chamber of India, there are a staggering 30 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in India operating in the manufacturing as well as the service sectors with potentially another 12 million that will be added in the next three years. What could potentially be of great relevance and importance to LSPs the world over in this piece of news is the fact that these SMEs contribute an extremely healthy 40% to the total exports of the country. Viewed from a global perspective, that would mean a potential market of over 40 million businesses for LSPs, because no export-intensive Indian SME can actually afford to have a monolingual business or product.

But reality on the ground paints a very different picture. It is not uncommon to find Indian SMEs desperately concealing their linguistic discomfort, selling products at international trade fairs, hoping the quality of their products will do the trick. There is an SME at probably every nook and corner of India. These companies typically have great ideas and great products but only basic packaging. Language as a component of packaging is usually most conspicuous by its absence, ensuring that these offerings stay largely local in their reach and appeal.

Monolingual SMEs have, for a long time, also been the true torchbearers of innovation in India. Take the case of ReliScore, a portal started by two ex-IIT students. Finding the right person is always a challenge in the corporate world. Resumes and grades, on the basis of which employers form their judgments, can both be equally deceptive. However, there are a significant number of candidates out there who are good at what they do and yet are never discovered only because they have not been able to perform well in exams, have frozen during HR interviews or are proud owners of unimpressive resumes. Now, this is not really an Indian problem. I have been present when dozens of employers in the western world complained about this very problem. This is where ReliScore offers a great fit. It offers a seamless platform for professionals to showcase their skills to potential employers. I’m just wondering if the people at ReliScore ever considered that employers and potential employees in the whole of Europe could be a potential market for their portal, should it ever be localized into a few European languages.

As opposed to ReliScore, take the example of Multi Crafts, an SME in the business of manufacturing high-quality fiber reinforced composite laminates. The owners had their eyes set on the European market. The LSP suggested first localizing the website and other sales literature into Italian, the language of their primary market. The LSP also suggested writing the first paragraph of the sales e-mail in Italian. The first paragraph said that there was nobody in the organization who could speak Italian but that potential customers in Italy could read about the company’s products on its website in Italian, and though the staff would prefer to correspond in English, they welcomed any e-mails that were written in Italian. In two quarters, the company registered an impressive 30% increase in the number of enquiries from Italy in particular and Europe in general. Its website is now localized into two more European languages.

So, clearly, there is a world of opportunity knocking at the doors of LSPs, even in these times of financial turmoil. If some markets have stagnated, some others have opened up. The story of India could be the story of, pretty much, any emerging market in the world. Much like that intelligent investor who buys when markets fall and then buys some more when they fall some more, LSPs must make the most of these difficult times to explore new markets and acquire newer customers. And although the Brazilian samba, Russian roulette and the Chinese dragon are all thrilling options, there is nothing quite like embarking on this exciting odyssey by riding the Indian elephant!