As a multilingual entrepreneur, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of building universal understanding. If that sounds somewhat lofty and ambiguous, let me explain. 

Many organizations find themselves limited in the markets they serve because of language. Even though English can give you a little more access in business, the idea that English is universal is an illusion. It’s realistically only spoken by a quarter of the world’s population. That leaves a lot of untapped opportunity on the table. Unbabel has found that most global organizations need to embrace language to maintain customer satisfaction and loyalty (more on that later). The opportunity is much greater than customer service alone.

In fact, I’d argue that language is one of the largest unspoken biases in business. As the world changes and companies become more global and digital, they can’t afford to ignore the fact that they’ll need to communicate in multiple languages.

So how do we solve this problem? Today, most organizations still rely on a siloed approach to language. For example, the marketing team might use translation services, while the sales team hires native speakers, and the customer service department staffs up with native-speaking BPOs. There’s no single language strategy that spans the entire organization. That leads to massive inefficiencies that can be solved with technology.

That’s where our vision for language operations comes in: it’s a cross-disciplinary function that helps global businesses communicate more effectively with their multilingual customers and stakeholders. Here’s how it can work for every department across the organization.

Spotting the early opportunity for language operations

Language is the most basic, universal human connection point. At Unbabel, our big idea is to provide an AI-powered, human-refined translation layer that eliminates the need for native speakers in every market but still provides high-quality translations. We started by solving the problem of multilingual communications in customer service because the opportunity cost of not providing multilingual support is too great.

Today, customers can come to online businesses from anywhere in the world. During the pandemic, in particular, global cross-border shopping has increased – online sales grew 21% from January to June of 2020, compared to the same time period last year.  If something goes wrong, how many of these people can get support in their native language? According to a recent study from Intercom, only 28% of them. That’s despite the fact that 70% of people would feel more loyal with native language support – 35% of them even said they’d switch products altogether to get native support. 

However, the opportunity for language operations doesn’t start and end with customer service alone.

Operating at a local level, at scale

Much like we’ve seen the rise of operations-for-everything powered by technology (think revenue ops, DevOps, marketing ops), Unbabel imagines a new category of language operations, in which AI-powered, human-refined machine translation technology serves as the centerpiece to power an entire organization’s language strategy.

Language operations leverages existing tools in the technology stack (in customer service, that’s tools like Zendesk, Helpshift, and more) to help everyday people communicate in any language. It’s a discipline that can help businesses grow more effectively, using data to drive decisions. For example, language operations can help a business understand exactly which languages are in highest demand so that organizations can support customers better and build stronger relationships.

Though the pandemic has led to many companies working remotely, for a company trying to find a new market for a product, local language and cultural norms still matter. 

As technology democratizes language even further, every company will be able to function like a multinational corporation and do business anywhere. In the near future, we’ll see AI powering business operations beyond the customer service organization – across functions like sales, marketing, and more.  As a result, more companies will be able to test product fit in more markets, especially as language becomes an asset, rather than a barrier to doing international business. Even if the head of the Japanese office is an English speaker in Austin, Texas.

Looking to the future

It’s not just Unbabel that believes technology has become the great equalizer for language around the globe. There’s a surge in demand for language learning apps like Duolingo, and growing excitement around multilingual artificial intelligence models like GPT-3, as well as more recent advancements from Google and Facebook. In other words, we’re all seeking universal understanding in different ways.

In 2021 and beyond, I anticipate that the category of language operations will grow as research in the machine learning field for language continues to take off. The ultimate goal? Empower organizations of any size to reach the scale and measurability of a sophisticated, multinational corporation.