Speaking to people in their own language may seem a pretty obvious thing to do but many companies are still erecting communications barriers between them and their customers.
There are a number of ways organisations can facilitate discourse with foreign language customers in order to improve communications, boost sales and reduce admin. This includes ways to smooth communications even if it isn’t possible to fully offer services in the customer’s own language.
A 2014 survey called ‘Can’t read; won’t buy’ found that (unsurprisingly) customers overwhelmingly prefer to purchase in their own language. Many companies take the sensible route of translating content into the key languages for the territories in which they operate.
For example, shoe seller Crockett & Jones offers its web content in both English and French. Many local authorities in the UK offer key material in languages besides English as this supports communication with minority language groups such as recent immigrant populations. London agents Douglas & Gordon offer a French-speaking branch in South Kensington to accommodate a large local client base of wealthy French expats.
It gets harder to cater to an audience where there isn’t a clear majority language.
This situation can arise in markets such as India or the Low Countries where customers could be speaking any one of a number of languages but may also have some level of understanding in others. In this kind of environment, it’s a good compromise to make key material available in the customer’s preferred language. A quick look at the web analytics might indicate what are the most visited pages and which content most seems to support sales. The company can then commit to keeping this relatively static content updated in the key languages. Offering critical information such as shipping and returns policies in the most relevant languages may also help support customer confidence and boost trust.
Providing information in multiple channels
It’s always a good idea to offers customers information in a variety of formats, even if you can’t do this in a variety of languages. This is good advice whether there are different languages being spoken or not.
Your customers will most likely have individual preferences for how they consume information.
For example, one homebuilder found that their custom base was split almost 50:50 between customers that wanted to see floor plans of new properties and those who weren’t interested in them.
Support your customers’ personal preferences by providing information in a variety of formats including video, print and digital text, and using images and infographics where appropriate. That’s especially important if the customers need any instruction or useful information such as how to order or how to use the product. It also supports non-native speakers who may find spoken word in video easier to follow than written text.
Customer service limitations
Some companies are increasingly turning to machine translation to communicate with their customers in multiple languages. This isn’t ideal, and can erect barriers between you and your audience or lead to misunderstandings. One example is an online seller that expanded overseas, relying to machine translation to render their product descriptions into the local language. They also used machine translation services to communicate with their customers via email.
This erected a number of barriers between the company and their potential audience. For a start, the product copy was not optimised as well as it could be for search engines. Because this copy was intended to last for an extended period, it would have been advisable to get this translated using an experienced translator.
It’s always advisable to ensure that static content such as product descriptions, most web copy, order forms, and print materials such as brochures, are translated using quality human translation.
The company’s second problem was that they weren’t able to provide other options for the customer to communicate with them. The limits on their language capabilities meant customers only had use of email, and the machine translation gave the company little control over its tone of voice and accuracy at providing that service.
Offering customers customer service by telephone or via social media may have improved their confidence ahead of purchase. It’s possible to access three-way translation services so you can provide customer service by phone. This brings an interpreter onto the call to liaise between you and the customer in order to resolve problems.
If you’re faced with a market where a multitude of languages are spoken, it’s difficult to know how many languages are optimal to employ and which ones to serve customers in. In many cases, the state’s own official language can be a good bet as many local people may have some degree of familiarity in them.
You may find customers have some capability in a majority language for their state but they may not be literate in it, or their ability in that language may be limited.
You can help this situation by providing visual information to support them and reduces the dependency on language precision and fluency. This approach supports customers who are using their second or third (or fourth or fifth) language to interact with you by supporting them with materials that are straightforward to understand even with a limited fluency.
Speaking clearly in any language
Communicating effectively with your customers isn’t just about reaching those who speak a foreign language: it’s also about communicating effectively with them in a common language.
Companies need to overcome their passion for using industry jargon, and forcing their customers to learn the organisation’s own language and internal structure in order to interact with it.
Although your company may call itself a beverage retailer, your customers buy pop, soda or fizzy drinks from you. It’s important to use the same language they do when you communicate with them. That’s especially vital when you’re thinking about your search strategy, when it’s crucial to describe your offering using the keywords a customer would use to search for it.