The last 10 years has brought sea changes to the customer service industry from both operations and technology standpoints. Organizations have moved away from traditional domestic live phone support toward new technologies and business models such as interactive voice response (IVR), intelligent scripting and offshoring.
E-commerce, in particular, has driven innovative sales and support models such as chat and email customer service by virtue of the global reach of the Internet as the channel of distribution. Despite radical changes in business models, too little attention has been paid to the growing field of multilingual customer support, especially in contact centers.
Case in point: The last U.S. census found that more than 28 million Americans spoke Spanish, with only about half saying they spoke English “very well.” The Spanish-speaking segment of the population grew more than 60 percent from the previous census, and Spanish continues to rapidly outpace all other foreign language categories in the U.S.
What is also compelling for businesses is that Hispanic purchasing power is expanding at a disproportionate rate. According to HispanTelligence, the research division of Hispanic Business, domestic Hispanic purchasing power is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. This is but one example of the changing language and commerce mix in just the U.S. market today.
Focusing on the Customer Experience
Historically, foreign language customer support functions were only available at major utilities or other public-function types of organizations. Today, virtually all contact centers, particularly inbound sales and support contact centers, have some multilingual functionality.
Because multilingual — particularly, Spanish-language — calls are becoming a significant portion of all calls coming into U.S. contact centers, managers must ask themselves whether the rules are the same for quality assurance with foreign-language calls as they are for English calls. How does a contact center manager who is not multilingual know if there is quality problem?
The question of managing quality within a multilingual contact center revolves not around the technicalities of foreign-language syntax, but around the customer experience. There is every reason to think that Spanish-speaking, French-speaking or Farsi-speaking customers will share negative experiences within their social circles as frequently as English-speaking customers do, so it’s vital to keep the quality high for all interactions in order to maintain a successful brand.
The first step in delivering excellence in customer service in any e-commerce environment is to ensure that essential information such as order-tracking, contact numbers and shipping dates are delivered in the customer’s preferred language. Often, live support calls can be successful just by ensuring the customer understands the logistics of the transaction, thus generating more customer satisfaction results.
It often behooves e-commerce organizations to conduct a portion of their customer support functions via written communications such as email. This is because many foreign-language customers may have functional English skills and opt to attempt a customer service call in English — yet due to language limitations between agents and customers, essential details may be lost. Written communications provide a more tangible and understandable mode of communication in many instances, further driving customer satisfaction.
Even with written communications as a vehicle, e-commerce organizations must still retain multilingual agents at their live customer service centers. Step one for an e-commerce retailer is to conduct baseline market research to determine which languages should be covered in their contact centers by examining geographic sales data.
Although most retailers are service-savvy and have multilingual agents on staff, many make a common mistake by utilizing the exact same quality evaluation scorecard for all interactions, regardless of language. In fact, there are several differences e-commerce contact center managers need to be aware of and account for when monitoring for quality.
The first notable difference relates to average call duration, a frequent measurement in contact centers. Quality evaluators must recognize that in most cases, foreign-language calls take longer than English-language calls. This is primarily due to agents using English-based scripts for their calls, and quite often words do not translate well — especially technical words or industry jargon. As a result, agents must spend extra time providing additional explanations using a hybrid foreign language/English format. Agents frequently have to spend extra time breaking down terms and processes for customers.
The second common mistake in evaluating foreign language calls is monitoring for proper grammar, which is a general quality practice on English language calls. Because a vast majority of bilingual U.S. contact center agents have learned their second language informally and have not lived in the country of the foreign language-speaking contact/customer, it makes for imperfect communication.
For example, many Mexican-Americans who grew up and work in U.S.-based contact centers have an imperfect grasp of all Spanish dialects but can still communicate reasonably well. While it is important to strive for proper grammar and supervisors should coach agents on errors, what is more important is to work with agents on creating rapport with the customer while still adhering to the essential elements of the call.
Quality essentials mean that the agents are adhering to the call script and flow, as well as procedures and processes, and that they are actively servicing customers as they should be. In the end, these things will determine whether a customer is getting a quality experience — in English, Spanish or any other language spoken.
Another gaffe when managing quality in a multilingual e-commerce contact center is forgetting to actually manage the quality of multilingual calls. Too many contact centers monitor and evaluate only a small portion of their calls, typically around five per agent per month. Because foreign-language calls are only a fraction of most companies’ calls, in many instances few, if any, foreign-language calls are being evaluated.
Most companies don’t have a handle on whether their agents are providing the same quality of care in foreign languages as they do in English. Investing in additional resources for evaluating and monitoring all calls can help prevent this problem, and ultimately increase ROI within the contact center.
Overall, the global economy continues to grow, and enterprises continue to service a broader, more diverse and international population. There is no industry that has experienced this fact more than e-commerce, where it is now possible for virtually any retailer to service consumers around the globe merely through a low-cost Internet connection.
As a result, the need for multilingual customer support functions — across mediums including live phone support, email, chat and IVR — continues to expand. While it’s admirable to add bilingual agents to the contact center, doing so without the proper quality measurements will only deliver poor results to a significant and growing portion of the customer base.
Chris Coles is president and CEO of HyperQuality, an independent quality assurance firm that focuses on the customer experience.