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The importance of multilingual skills in customer service

GLOBE


by Angelique Lagat

Working with clients or partners worldwide and across multiple industries is more common in the workplace than ever before. Due to technological advances prompted by the current pandemic, we are experiencing closer connectivity with our global colleagues—creating mutual business growth.

You can be in Alabama while assisting a vendor in Argentina or a customer in Senegal. However, chances are that your contact either does not speak English or is more comfortable speaking another language. This creates the need for skilled customer service employees who can cater to them. The likelihood for this required skill increases if you work for an international company or work with non-English speakers.

Accurate interpretation is crucial to the success of your business. Several technical tools, such as Google Translate or MS Teams translation, may facilitate communication in a LOTE (Language Other Than English). Although these tools can be useful, they are not recommended for official translations or communications regarding a complex task. Instead, it is best to rely on skilled, multilingual employees.

However, just speaking a LOTE is often not enough to be able to assist someone. For example, I speak three languages fluently, enabling me to communicate with people from different cultures. Nevertheless, at the beginning of my career, I experienced some challenges—but I have since acquired the tools, training and knowledge to conquer them!

The rewards of employing multilingual personnel—or working as a multilingual employee—can be substantial. Below are several tips that I hope will be useful for managers or any multilingual associate:

1) Is it a strategic investment?
This is the million-dollar question. For some of you, it may mean a significant investment. My suggestion is to evaluate how many requests you receive in a LOTE compared to the number of requests in English. Analyze these requests by asking the following questions: Is this a service that you offer? Is it a service you can pass on to another department or a translation and interpretation (T&I) agency? In my experience, consistently reporting all LOTE calls and tickets we receive helps upper management understand the necessity of maintaining and growing our team.

2) Market your department
Once you have multilingual employees on your team, make sure to let your company, customers and/or vendors know that services are available in LOTE. It will increase your company’s visibility.

3) Prepare
If you have hired a multilingual employee, or you fluently speak a LOTE, this is a step in the right direction. However, speaking a LOTE does not automatically qualify someone to be a translator or interpreter. In addition, the employee must still be trained for the main core tasks. For a T&I event, all content must be mastered: both the technical content in English and the jargon in LOTE.

Early in my career, I had a painful experience during my second week of work at a new company. I was asked to serve as an interpreter during a conference phone call with Spanish-speaking co-workers. I was given no background information on the meeting’s topic and there were no technological tools to accommodate Spanish interpretation. The conversation ended up lasting twice the time scheduled, and everyone involved was confused. I knew the language, but I was not trained for the core task.

Remember: You are hiring the employee for language skills and technical skills. If all the employee does is T&I, the employee will probably feel ill-prepared and confuse the very people they were supposed to assist.

Human Resources can help determine how your employees’ titles reflect their skills. It can be a difficult task to find an employee who has both language and technical skills. It’s useful to evaluate if your department needs someone who knows LOTE basics but is not necessarily fully bilingual. For example, if an employee speaks basic Portuguese but isn’t fluent, it may not be essential to update their title to multilingual. Nevertheless, having them on your team will still make a substantial difference in your customer service department.

4) Prioritize
Certain T&I assignments may not be a priority for your department. Is it productive to spend time on a T&I project over another project? Suppose you cannot immediately allocate a reasonable time frame for an assignment. In that case, it is okay to say no or to suggest moving it to another time when your department is available.

The first inquiry I make to the requestor when I receive a T&I assignment is regarding their deadline. I must first consider my own department’s projects to accurately assess whether we can work within the requested deadline. It is important not to overwhelm your department with too many projects, as this can unnecessarily result in leaving the assignment unfinished or poorly done. We want all projects to be successful!

5) Keep them sharp
Just as your employees need continuing education in safety, system upgrades and company policies, their LOTE skills must be expanded, maintained and nurtured. My department has only two multilingual speakers. Most of my English-speaking employees do not speak a LOTE, but I encourage their interest. To support this effort, I created a document with basic language phrases to help them transfer calls to our multilingual associates. The document contains expressions such as “thank you,” “hello” and “one moment, please.” Phonetic transcription (representing each distinct speech sound with a separate symbol) works best, but the goal is to make it an easy experience, not to give  employees a phonetics lesson.

Enhancing your customer service is key for a successful business. Investing in LOTE skills can improve your customer service and differentiate you from your competitors.

It will take time, practice, failures and successes to nurture these skills and tailor them to your business needs. Fortunately, most people working in customer service, across multiple industries, are typically already interested in working with diverse people and international cultures.

Put on your seat belt and enjoy the ride along the global highways! By leveraging LOTE skills and making these important connections, your bottom line (and many customers) will thank you.

Angelique LagatAngelique Lagat, Helpdesk Manager at Motion, speaks fluent English, French and Spanish, plus basic Swahili and Italian. Lagat holds a BA in International Studies from Louisiana State University and an MBA in International Business from the Monterey Institute of International Studies (since renamed Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey). She is working on a certificate of Translation and Interpretation from the University of Massachusetts. For more about Motion, visit Motion.com/industrialsupply.

This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2021 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2021, Direct Business Media.

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