Nowadays, online services target customers in hundreds of countries at once. And thanks to a fully localized customer experience, consumers are becoming ever more comfortable with using international services.

But providing support in multiple languages is much harder than delivering a product in multiple languages. Localization is pretty much a one-off process and easily quantified: you know exactly how many pages, screens, and experiences you’ll have to translate. Support is all about exceptions to the norm: it’s the constant challenge of dealing with the unexpected on a timescale dictated by the customer.

Clearly, keeping a call center stocked with an international community of Customer Support Agents to rival the Eurovision Song Contest is not going to be economically viable. Maybe you’ll want to support some top languages and ignore the rest. Perhaps you’ll want to cover it all. But making these decisions won’t be easy. You want to make your customers feel more comfortable by getting their queries resolved in their native language, but you also want to avoid the logistical and financial nightmares that this entails.

How many languages do you need to support? Should you hire native agents for every language? And how should you adapt to the local culture?

Here’s a quick checklist to help you make these decisions and get your team ready for multilingual customer support.

✅ Know what languages your customers speak

Obvious. But still usually a surprise. Look at your own data and understand your users’ behavior. IP data, emails, and other contacts will give you a good picture of your language needs. Do people who live in Russia spend more on your website than those who live in Spain? Or is it the other way around?

There are also other factors which may be relevant when doing multilingual customer service. Here are a few examples:

Include second languages. In some territories, a second language is so pervasive that the problem is dramatically mitigated: in the Netherlands and Israel, for example, English is very widely spoken. But in countries like China, not so much.

Get the product right first. If you receive a disproportionately high number of support requests in a language compared to service users in that language, this points to a more fundamental problem with the localization of the product (or possibly a cultural misalignment). In either case, don’t sweat about translations, sweat about the product itself!

Look at language trends. Today, only 20% of all online content is in English. And you can pretty much imagine what that means for companies around the world. There are a whole lot more languages to tackle if you want to be global. So which languages should we keep an eye on? According to Common Sense Advisory’s latest report, we’ll be able to reach 90% of total online GDP with just 16 languages in 2022 — this includes languages such as simplified Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, English, or German.

Questions to ask:

  • What are the main languages spoken by our customers?
  • At what point do they tail off (expect 3-5 main languages and then a dramatic fall-off)?
  • Is there a difference between the languages used in support calls and the languages used by non-exceptional customers?
  • What are the secondary languages in our territories?
  • Which languages will be crucial for our future?
A Checklist for Multilingual Customer Support - Check

✅ Give customers as much information online as possible – and the tools to self-serve

Most of us have called a customer service center, already mildly irate, and heard something like this to make their blood boil:

Did you know, you can find the answer to most problems online. See our website, at www.patronisingthecustomer.com.

As we transition towards the majority of people being online-savvy, callers are either people who don’t like going online at all or people who have tried to find their answers online – and found the information lacking.

In general, companies are still getting FAQs wrong, and the costs of neglecting this section of your website can be bigger than you imagine.

Here’s a fun fact for you: 81% of all customers try to find their own solution before reaching out to a customer support agent. Maybe because they’re afraid of getting stuck in an Answering Machine loop forever, or perhaps, like my dad trying to find his way to a hotel, asking for directions feels like admitting defeat.

At the very least, ensure that you translate your FAQs and Knowledge Bases into as many languages as necessary; and that both original and translated versions are revisited regularly (quarterly or every six months is ideal).

And where possible, localize self-service tools: you almost certainly run password resets without human intervention, so see what else could be automated.

In the end, improving your self-service tools is not that difficult; you just need to know where to start.

Questions to ask:

  • Is all our customer service information localized?
  • Do customer contact reports feed into the production of future FAQs?
  • Can we automate anything?

✅ Understand the service expectations of a local culture

Cultural aspects of customer support can vary widely. Some countries have different expectations of the sort of service they should receive. For example, the US travel services business, Priceline, found that South American consumers spent more time on the phone — which would require larger support staff.

Perhaps more importantly, some countries have rigid rules on hierarchy and manners, such that spending more time crafting a culturally appropriate reply will yield a better level of satisfaction than racing to get a faster response out. The same Priceline spokesperson notes that extra training would be given to Customer Support Agents servicing the Japanese market to account for the important honorifics (titles and forms of respectful address) in Japanese culture.

Questions to ask:

  • What are the local expectations of service in each territory?
  • What is the cultural role of communication in each territory?
  • What do people in each territory value most? And what would turn them off?
A Checklist for Multilingual Customer Support - Check

✅ Time zones are cultural assets too

Today, speed matters. We have culturally ingrained expectations about how long a reply should take. For example, we now expect “verify your email address” emails to be delivered within seconds of signing up to a new service. We want a reply to a tweet within a few hours – especially if it’s a complaint. We expect a customer support email response within 2-24 hours (and we give extra credit if it’s faster than that). In short, we’re time-sensitive.

Research from our partner, Zendesk, found that in most territories, the speed of response is the greatest single factor in customer satisfaction; and that means time zones take on new importance.

If you require 2 hours to deal with a query (which is an impressive response!) but your service hours are 8 am – 8 pm, then what you call ‘night-time’ will, on the other side of the world, be up to 14 miserable hours of waiting. Many online businesses find themselves opening (or buying in) 24/7 support centers for precisely this reason.

Questions to ask:

  • What does our world look like? Are there ‘hotspot’ time-zones to consider?
  • What are our best and worst possible outcomes for response times with current staffing? Is this adequate?

✅ Assess your linguistic long tail

You’ll almost certainly have heard the concept of the ‘long tail.’ It’s a diagram something like this:

A Checklist for Multilingual Customer Support - Long Tail

It describes the many situations where a small number of items account for the majority of circumstances, and a substantial amount of items account for the remainder. For example:

Library books: in most libraries, a small number of books are hugely popular and lent out all the time; but the majority of books are much less popular, and some are barely ever lent out at all.

Google’s most searched: Google’s most searched ‘how-tos’ include ‘How to tie a tie,’ ‘how to kiss,’ ‘how to get pregnant’ and ‘how to lose weight’ (that was one hell of a night!). But after these very popular questions, the rate at which questions are asked drops off rapidly, with millions of questions only asked once.

Your demand for support languages is almost certainly a long-tail graph (our client, Skyscanner, saw exactly this type of demand for languages). A few languages will be worth local or in-house support from native speakers. The rest – the long tail – are where you must make a call as to how much support will impact profitability.

Questions to ask:

  • What shape is our long tail? Where does in-house support end and on-demand support begin?
  • At what point is support no longer economical to provide?
  • What is the trend in product usage in long-tail territories – where is usage surging, which would warrant extra attention?

In the end, it’s all about creating a long lasting relationship with your customers. Your support team won’t probably be an international community of thousands to rival the Eurovision Song Contest, but at least you’ll be able to turn a complicated operation such as multilingual customer support into a smooth and efficient process with these tips.