Nowadays, companies that have grown internationally target customers in numerous countries at once.

But providing customer support in multiple languages can easily turn into a logistical nightmare. 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.

So why is multilingual support such an important piece in the operational puzzle, anyway?

We recently partnered with Execs In The Know to get a more nuanced answer.

When asked, “What is your biggest and most painful challenge in terms of languages and customer service?” nearly half of survey respondents (47%) identified sourcing and agent retention as their primary pain points. Respondents also cited volume and scalability (19%), cost efficiency (18%), and quality assurance, and regulatory compliance (16%).

Another way to understand the challenges of multilingual support is to envision a world in which language isn’t an operational hurdle.

We asked industry leaders what they’d do if language weren’t a factor in their operating model. We received a fascinating array of answers:

  • 30% of respondents said that if language weren’t a factor, they could focus on cost efficiencies and talent sourcing.
  • 15% said that without language constraints their support operations would benefit from greater flexibility.
  • 12% said they could focus on consolidating their support operations.

The six barriers to multilingual customer support

There are six key challenges preventing enterprises from achieving operational flexibility and cost savings:

1. Fluctuating demand

In our EITK report, 44% or respondents cites dealing with unplanned event spikes as the biggest multilingual stressors, and another 26% chose “dealing with planned seasonality spikes.” Whether you’re covering in-house or through a BPO, these surges in inbound inquiries call for an agile customer service responses that is simply hard to scale across languages. And if you don’t rise to the occasion, your customers might be left scrambling for a hotel room in Naples.

2. Low-volume languages

What do you do when request volumes unfortunately do not justify hiring full time native speaker agents?

3. Timezones

In today’s global economy, with customer expectations constantly on the rise, there’s more and more pressure on organizations to provide fast, always-on support across multiple time zones. While this is an incredibly noble goal, in reality it can be an incredible strain on operations and drain on resources. Indeed, in the past, staffing for always-on support meant recruiting agents at various locations around the world, or running costly night shifts.

4. Recruiting, training, and retaining the best

When asked, “What is your biggest and most painful challenge in terms of languages and customer service?,” nearly half of EITK respondents (47%) identified sourcing and agent retention as their primary pain points.

Today’s agents must possess not just strong language skills but strong technical skills as well, and these two requirements can be hard to find in tandem. As more companies seek to tap into a finite talent pool of highly skilled multilingual agents, sourcing and retention has become increasingly challenging and costly. With limited resources, global companies continue to prioritize those skilled resources in the few high-demand languages that touch the majority of their customer base, while the so-called “long tail” of low-volume languages frequently goes underserved.

And often, the agents that fit more specialized job descriptions are traveling or moving abroad for short stints. Problems with retention can exacerbate the language problem in CX, and call for a bolder solution than simply bolstering recruitment efforts.

5. Support costs

Historically, to keep costs down companies have relied heavily on English-proficient agents located across the globe, with the Philippines, India, or Ireland being the most popular locations. Regardless of where you choose to locate your support centers, quickly scaling a customer service operation to provide consistently high-quality support for international customers is a huge challenge. Failing to provide language support, however, can be damaging to a growing brand’s reputation.

6. Empathy in every language

Some of the digital translation services on the market solve problems of scale, but throw a new challenge into the mix: maintaining an authentic brand voice and personal touch. Automation can’t come at the expense of authentic human customer experience. Humans bring emotional intelligence, and that’s where true customer experience value comes from.

Gearing up for multilingual support at scale

But how does a big corporation tackle these six challenges?

For James Cross, Digital & Service Senior Strategy lead at Microsoft, the solution began with choosing the right translation tools. Our AI-powered, human-refined Customer Service Solution combines the speed and scale of machine translation with the authenticity that can come only from a native speaker.

But when you’re transforming operations, you need more than the right tools. You need the right methodology. Here are the four pillars of James’s strategy for pursuing major changes to an operating model — in this case, an innovative multilingual strategy with Unbabel.

Pilot it up

Test out various channels, various markets, various types of customer support inquiries, and various moments in the customer journey. It’s worth taking the time to consider the answer to the following questions, while equipping yourself with as much relevant data as much as you can.

These were some of the questions James asked before embarking on a digital transformation strategy with Unbabel:

  • Where are the problems we try to solve across various lines of business?
  • What languages can be covered through native speakers and where there is space for experimentation?
  • What is the cost of hiring native speakers in certain location versus using AI and a gig economy model?
  • For which type of customer queries, possibly more technical, you need to rely still on human agents and where you can deliver the same level of support leveraging technology as an enabler?
  • How am I going to evaluate and scale this? What parameters matter the most for me?

It may seem obvious, but the more deliberately crafted your pilot program is, the more likely you are to effect major change to your operations.

Dramatic changes call for careful metrics

What can be measured can’t be improved. And, for Microsoft, when it came to evaluating Unbabel, that meant measuring the quality of translation against native speakers. You need to think up metrics that are just as likely to challenge your assumptions as they are to confirm them.

Dream big and scale thoughtfully

When pilot programs start showing serious results, it’s time to take it to the next level of scale for maximum impact. But with a rigorous, carefully thought out approach.

Look deeper to understand the bigger picture, how these pilots fit within the organization at a higher level, how the program will enable better business decisions in the future.

Results always speak for themselves but having a strong voice at the helm always helps — put another way, what you need is a bold vision for scale and the real data to back it up. Building cross functional teams that really define objectives, scoping opportunities, clear timelines, resources, and ensure the full cycle is completed is another key to success.

Mind the cultural gap

Customers bring their own cultural background with them to every conversation — tone, style of writing, the level of detail they go into, the expectations they have. There’s no room for a one-size-fits-all approach. So how can you ensure your advocates deliver the best experience to international customers? A great place to start is by developing a cultural awareness program, building a list of “faux pas,” and leveraging sentiment analysis as a tool to understand the cultural relationship between the consumer and your brand.

Meet us in London

Next week, James and I will be at Customer Service and Experience Summit for a workshop on scaling multilingual support. If you plan on attending CSES, feel free to shoot us a message on LinkedIn ahead of the event.

In the meantime, if you’re curious about how Unbabel and Microsoft are transforming customer service operations, we’ve put together this brief video interview with James. Think of it as a sneak peek.

Hope to see you there!