How Language Inequity Impacts the Customer Experience


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Anyone who has traveled to a different country and didn’t speak the language knows the feelings of frustration and anxiety that come with that experience. Even fluent speakers who are experts in their fields can face bias if they have an accent. Somehow, as a society, we’ve correlated language skills with intelligence, when that’s far from the case.

No one deserves to feel like a second-class citizen, especially your customers. Even so, many businesses find themselves challenged to expand their capabilities into new languages. In a recent survey, 44% of enterprise decision-makers found adding new languages to be cost-prohibitive, and 36% cited decentralized processes and a lack of a single owner as barriers to language expansion.

However, relying on English as the lingua franca is no longer working. A 2020 study from Common Sense Advisory showed that 40% of customers won’t purchase products if the companies don’t offer native language support. In addition, three-quarters of customers requested product information in their own language.

Let’s take a look at some ways in which language inequity impacts the customer experience, and how AI can help break down some of the most common language expansion barriers.

Language: A Missed Diversity & Inclusion Opportunity?

Achieving global diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a big challenge for many businesses, yet many do not consider language equality as a part of their larger D&I strategy. Language equality is the ability to access information, products and services equally, regardless of language. In other words, the ability to have a great customer experience shouldn’t be relegated to English speakers alone.

For example, the population of Portuguese speakers and their relative economic purchasing power often holds businesses back from offering customer support and localized content in that language. This is something I’m acutely aware of as a native Portuguese speaker. British Airways, for instance, only offers customer service in Portuguese on weekdays during business hours—and they’re a global airline with massive European operations. This is in spite of the fact that Portuguese is the sixth most spoken language in the world, with nearly 230 million native speakers.

Our company recently tested the theory of language inequity by emailing the customer service departments of several companies with a simple question in Portuguese: “How do I change my password?” Some responded as if we’d written complete gibberish. The majority replied with a list of languages they supported – and Portuguese was not on the list. Unless you hit an agent who happens to speak Portuguese, you’re out of luck.

For businesses, language inequality can add up to missed opportunities, frustrated customers (or potential customers), and even lower profits. Prior to intelligent, AI-driven translation, it used to be difficult and costly to staff native-speaking customer service operations centers. Today, that’s not the case. AI-powered language operations can empower English-speaking customer service agents to reply to email or chat messages in Portuguese or other languages. With a native-speaking editor checking the quality of these translations, organizations can be assured that they’re delivering on the promise of a language-inclusive customer experience.

Delivering Language-Inclusive Customer Experiences

We need to reach a tipping point where this technology is used at global scale. Ideally, AI can help alleviate some of the concerns for language expansion, with its low cost, centralized ownership, and common process across teams. In fact, every industry needs to consider the languages available for its products and services. For example, the technology sector has the capability to lead the way, yet still falls short.

Consider StackOverflow, the largest global resource for software developers. Most of these developers participate in the English-language version of the site. While StackOverflow does have localized versions of its site (including StackOverflow Brazil), these developer communities are limited to local knowledge only. That means they don’t get the benefit of learning from developers across languages, and can’t collaborate with anyone outside of their native language. Instead, an AI-driven translation process could be leveraged on the main site to open new doors to people in every language.

While the internet has made language inequality a lot more stark and obvious, it can also offer the solution. There are so many new advancements in AI-assisted rapid translation. In 2020, there were several major breakthroughs for language machine learning models, including OpenAI’s GPT-3, Facebook’s M2M-100 translation model and Google’s MT5. In time, we may even see a common multilingual machine translation model, which would make supporting a multilingual customer experience even simpler. It’s time that we start breaking down barriers and creating a more inclusive customer experience – starting with language.

Vasco Pedro
Vasco Pedro is a co-founder and chief executive officer of Unbabel, a company that removes language barriers by blending artificial intelligence with real time, human translations. A serial entrepreneur, Vasco has led Unbabel since 2013, taking it through Y Combinator and raising a total of $31 million in funding.


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