The internet was invented in the U.S., so it makes sense that the English language dominated its early days. Today, the amount of content available in English is still quite high, around 59.7 percent of the whole internet. Yet only 25.9 percent of the internet’s users speak English. 

If users are not able to access content about products and services in their native languages, they are unlikely to purchase them. In fact, a full 40 percent of global consumers won’t buy in another language. Another 74 percent say they are more likely to buy from a brand a second time if they are offered post-sales support in their native language. 

In other words, not offering multilingual customer support online is costing businesses revenue. It also costs them customer trust, which is worth its weight in gold. 

So why don’t more businesses speak their customers’ languages? In a nutshell, because it’s hard! In this post, we’ll take a deeper look at the barriers that keep businesses from offering multilingual customer service and how to overcome them without sacrificing quality or speed. 

The biggest barriers to providing multilingual customer service

Hiring people who speak all of your customers’ and potential customers’ languages in CS centers can prove challenging. Businesses may have customers in many places around the world. Some languages are very expensive to resource, because they are relatively rare (such as Dutch and German) or especially challenging (such as Korean). For these reasons, hiring customer service reps who speak the language of every single customer can prove costly. Additionally, the specific languages you need to resource can change dynamically—as is the case in many industries like travel and hospitality. 

Depending on the complexity of the products and services you sell, you may also need to hire people with varying degrees of expertise and knowledge. You may have simple requests that any rep could handle but require someone with high-level expertise to handle the most complex five to 10 percent of requests. Aligning a variety of skill levels with specific language requirements often requires complex matrices and costs real money. Plus, if you need to train people up to get them to the right level of product knowledge or language proficiency, it can be a huge drain on productivity. 

While these barriers are very real, it is possible to overcome them with the right mix of technology and people in place. 

How businesses attempt to offer multilingual customer service

When we speak with customer service teams, they usually understand the value of multilingual customer service; they simply don’t know how to offer it at scale—or don’t believe it’s possible. 

We have seen many creative attempts at offering multilingual customer service. In one case, a large BPO bought several apartment buildings in a major European city for a multilingual customer service hub. While this could be a clever strategy on paper, it is unsustainable for the vast majority of businesses. Even BPOs that make a significant portion of their revenue on multilingual services struggle to do this efficiently and cost effectively when the strategy is built entirely on human resources.  

More commonly, businesses will cobble together a mixture of native speakers, outsourcing (whether offshore, nearshore, or onshore), and translation tools. When this is not done with the right level of attention to detail and fluency, it can backfire. 

On the other hand, we have seen some young technology companies incorporate multilingual AI into their Zendesk implementations and offer multilingual customer service by design from day one. 

BPOs have seen success with this strategy as well. One of our customers had a BPO center in the Philippines that was forced to close due to COVID. They relocated their operations to Mexico. Using Unbabel, they were able to open their new customer service center rapidly, because it didn’t matter what languages the local representatives could speak. Unbabel provided a seamless translation layer that allowed them to relocate where it made sense for their business, regardless of language factors. 

Where to start with multilingual customer service

Again, many customer service teams recognize the wisdom of offering multilingual customer service, but it can be challenging to know where to begin, including what languages to start with and how to empower teams. 

One good place to start is to check the traffic to the business’s website. Find out where people are coming from and what languages they speak. This will help identify low-hanging fruit opportunities by highlighting regions that are already interested in your products but may not be purchasing or repurchasing due to a lack of support in their native language(s). 

Next, take a look at customer service inquiries that arrive in languages not currently served. This will also help illuminate current demand and enable teams to make data-driven decisions on which languages to get started with. Best of all, these strategies don’t require complex analytics or studies. They should be relatively quick and easy to conduct and turn over key market opportunities. 

Most companies find that once they deploy a high-quality machine translation product across a few key languages, it becomes progressively easier to scale and service dozens of languages or more. Asynchronous communication enabled by machine translation takes the pressure off customer service teams while still enabling businesses to provide high-quality service.

Finally, study what competitors are doing. If they are offering support in languages that you are not, there’s a good chance you’re losing customers to them. Covering these languages could add valuable revenue by expanding the pool of buyers. 

Localization isn’t enough. 

Being local is not enough. People can buy almost anything online, so locality is not as much of a differentiator as many businesses may believe. Where your customer service team is located is irrelevant to customers if they get the care they deserve and expect. At the end of the day, the way you treat your customers and their trust in your brand are the most important factors in whether customers choose you or the competition. To earn that trust, speak their language.