How do you feel when you call a hotel, airline or other travel company and get through to a call centre where no one speaks your language? You, like most people, probably feel the company is not interested in you and so decide to take your business elsewhere.

This rarely happens to English speakers but what about the people who buy from your company who speak a language other than English? What is their experience of your company?

The contact centre has changed almost beyond recognition in the last few years. In 2003 90% of interactions were voice; by 2010 this had fallen to just 30%, and the battery farm call centres of yesteryear have largely been replaced by sophisticated operations using e-mail, webchat and social media alongside traditional voice.

Yet, they are still for the most part using English. As the world becomes ever more globalised and as companies look increasingly beyond national borders for their new customers so we may soon see an ever greater shift in the contact centre world. We may be about to witness the emergence of the multilingual campaign.

There are many potential benefits for travel companies to go multilingual, but getting it right is far from easy – as many companies are now discovering. The ability to do so could be what marks out the successful companies of tomorrow from the also-rans. Is your contact centre operation geared up to compete in this multilingual world?

The global village
A combination of the weak pound and a consumer economy mired in recession has led more and more UK companies to look overseas for customers. In 2011 32% of UK GDP came from export, up from 30% in 2010 and just 25% in 2004. Increasingly, UK plc is speaking to consumers in all parts of the globe.

The emergence of new technologies such as e-mail, webchat and social media means it is now easier to deliver customer service regardless of location. A company can talk to a customer in Rio de Janeiro as easily as one in Reigate. But are they speaking to those consumers in their own language? And are they providing a seamless, consistent service across borders?

There are compelling reasons why they should want to do so. According to research from Common Sense Advisory amongst 2,430 people in eight countries, 72.4% of people are more likely to buy a product that is described in their own language. Moreover, 56.2% said that being able to get information in their own language is more important than price. The message is clear: speak the same language as your customers and you will not only have more customers, you will also be able to charge them more.

Hard to get right
So, what can UK companies do to offer this multilingual customer service and so steal a march on their competitors? Many struggle. Their domestic contact centres tend to only offer English – after all fewer than 20% of UK adults speak a foreign language, compared to 63% for EU citizens as a whole.

Traditionally, when looking overseas for contact centre support, UK companies have looked to English-speaking companies such as India, the Caribbean , the Philippines and so on. These countries might be able to offer their own indigenous languages, but few have language capabilities beyond that.

There is no simple solution to this mounting challenge, but many companies in recent years have found success by outsourcing their multilingual campaigns to Bulgaria. At 60k, a 600-seat contact centre in Sofia, clients such as Thomas Cook, eBay, BEUnlimited, Seatwave and Zumba are attracted not only by a pool of talented graduates with IT qualifications and skills, low campaign set-up costs, and ongoing agent costs that are around half the equivalent in the UK, but also because the company offers native speakers in 27 languages.

When Thomas Cook first approached us in 2011 to help run its customer webchat it needed reassurance about our language skills. The company now use us for webchat with customers in France and Belgium, and we have built a team of 91 agents speaking English, French and Dutch.

A growing trend
This just the beginning of the multilingual campaign. The era when English-speakers dominated global consumption is drawing to a close. To give just one indication of this changing world, by 2020 57% of urban Chinese consumers will be able to afford a car and small luxury goods – a sixfold increase on the number today.

Consumers in Russia, India, Brazil, and a whole host of countries behind them, are also entering the global market at an equally astonishing rate. The race is on to reach those consumers and to build relationships with them. To do that, UK plc needs to start speaking their language.


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