How to use telephone interpreting to create “omnilingual” service

MultiLingual January February 2020 From social media and customer help lines to actual brick-and-mortar stores, business-to-consumer (B2C) companies have a lot of channels to monitor.
Allie Fritz headshot

Allie Fritz

Allie Fritz is the director of operations for Lionbridge’s over-the-phone interpretations division. She initially joined Lionbridge nine years ago as an interpreting recruiter and has also overseen quality assurance.

Allie Fritz headshot

Allie Fritz

Allie Fritz is the director of operations for Lionbridge’s over-the-phone interpretations division. She initially joined Lionbridge nine years ago as an interpreting recruiter and has also overseen quality assurance.


rom social media and customer help lines to actual brick-and-mortar stores, business-to-consumer (B2C) companies have a lot of channels to monitor. To keep the brand cohesive, advanced marketing teams deploy an omnichannel approach — a single, ideal customer experience that remains consistent across every platform and all types of communication. When it comes to making an omnichannel multilingual, though, customer service phone lines are more difficult to streamline.

Depending on how they’re classified, between 6,000 and 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide — 232 in the United States alone — and while interpreting technology is advancing, the field has yet to implement artificial intelligence on as robust of a level as written translation. Multilingual chatbots and machine translation have made social media and website localization easier than before, but over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) is still markedly dependent on people.

This can leave companies at a loss when deciding which languages to communicate in where. Languages of lesser diffusion (LLD) can be particularly tricky. Not only can live interpreters for LLDs occasionally take longer to get on the line, but depending on your OPI provider, they could cost more too. Some telephone interpreting providers charge the same amount per minute regardless of language, but others vary pricing by supply and demand.

So while American retailers might not scoff at a lower-priced, commonly-spoken language like Spanish, for example, buyers might easily see a higher quote for something like Somali and think, well, we just won’t offer that. But if a store is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota — a town with the highest Somali population in the United States and a Somali-American Congresswoman — this would be a mistake, possibly alienating nearly 74,000 people.

In terms of the bottom line, though, more than alienation is at stake: there’s also cold hard cash. As CSA Research reports, 55% of global shoppers won’t buy from a company unless product information is available in their language.

This “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” philosophy doesn’t stop at point of purchase: for call centers specifically, language access becomes even more important as 74% of international consumers indicate subsequent spend depends on availability of after-sale language access.

So when it comes to using OPI to gain and retain customers, where does a B2C company start? How can you even begin to roadmap the “omnilingual” experience?

1. Look for opportunities in every language

Start by understanding the limited-English customer experience itself. What happens when someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you calls the company contact center or service desk? Is this experience good or bad for them? Why or why not?

If you don’t know, consider these questions from the customer’s perspective:

  • How easy is it to report an issue or voice a concern?
  • Which communication channels are available in which languages right now? Are these channels the same platforms that customers speaking those languages prefer?
  • How many times does a customer have to repeat herself? Callers who press 2 for Spanish shouldn’t have to also tell service reps that their bill needs to be in Spanish. Integrating telephonic interpreting preferences with customer profiles will better streamline omnichannel experiences.
  • Are limited-English callers handed off to multiple employees or placed on hold multiple times before they get an interpreter? Per telecommunications giant AT&T, the average American caller only waits 38 seconds on hold before hanging up. Your limited English customers are making an effort to connect with you. Don’t lose them.
  • At the end of the call, has the customer’s issue been resolved?
  • How much effort did this take? How much time? Are lengthier calls commensurate to more complex needs?

These answers will help you ascertain the state of your current multilingual customer experience and pinpoint problems in the original English experience as well.

2. Quantify language and volume

Just like in our Minneapolis example, the languages your customers speak may surprise you. Brick-and-mortar retailers should research language demographics for zip — or postal — codes near their stores. When someone who doesn’t speak English calls the helpline, jot down what they do speak. Look at these numbers just as you would any other sales demographic. Which languages get requested the most?

Understanding this landscape will help you provide a higher quality experience in a more cost-efficient, profit-driven way.

3. Break down the metrics

Once you’ve identified customer languages, cross-reference each one individually with the company’s existing key performance indicators. Maybe you track customer satisfaction scores or cost per click rates. If the time it takes to respond/repair/resolve an issue or cost per incident matters to you, then run those numbers for your limited-English customer base too. Pay special attention to first call resolution stats, as these numbers don’t just measure how happy your customers are — or aren’t! — but also indicate how much the language barrier is already costing you. B2C companies are often surprised to find numbers across the board rank significantly lower for multilingual customer groups, and are remarkably pleased when they see how quickly telephone interpreting brings those numbers up.

4. Map the multilingual customer journey

Identify the languages with lower customer metrics, then map the specific customer journey for each one. This helps you develop a clear picture of which need the most attention.

As with metrics, retailers are sometimes shocked when they realize just how difficult their current experience makes it for certain customer groups to buy products. Going back to those CSA Research statistics, language access is particularly important for companies that see more profit from repeat business.

5. Consider your options

Now that the data’s in place and the journeys are mapped, marketers can start the revenue-driving process, determining which languages make the most sense for the bottom line and how to communicate in them.

If customers who speak a certain language prefer calling, for example, then OPI is the first service you’ll need to buy. Or, if you only need one or two high-volume languages, run the cost-benefit analysis of hiring bilingual call reps. But should a service issue escalate, does this mean you’ll need bilingual managers too? And what about your disaster recovery backup call center? Is it equipped with bilingual personnel? Go back to the journey: if everything goes right, or if it goes wrong, precisely whom will this customer need to interact with? Should that employee speak the customer’s language personally or connect through an interpreter?

For most companies, no single language alternative is ever the answer. Most retailers require a mix, just like your customers want more than one way to get ahold of you. Best-in-class retailers combine translation and interpretation, devising strategies for each language based on high, medium and low volume language needs. Maybe you need a real-time multilingual chat instead of OPI; maybe just machine translated customer care emails is what’s right for you. No two companies are alike. A skilled language services provider will work with you to develop the best approach.

6. Improve experience one step at a time

Treat this process like a science experiment. Introduce one new variable at a time and measure its impact before making major company-wide changes. You don’t have to immediately offer support for all of the languages that all of your customers speak. Instead, start by closing the biggest gaps. Provide support for the highest volume language first, then test, measure and optimize to make that solution successful. Then you’ll have a positive case study for tracking improved customer service and sales metrics that you can use to convince management to provide interpreting for the rest.