Being born in a native English-speaking country comes with a lot of privilege. You can visit nearly any country in the world and find someone who speaks your language. Most global companies cater to English speakers, even though they only make up about a quarter of internet users worldwide.
What about everyone else?
Consider this: Most of us spend our days in a language bubble, chatting in the language we find most comfortable with our family and friends. Most English-speakers also work alongside people who speak English fluently, if not natively. And, they are able to buy any product or service in their native language, confident that — if something goes wrong with it — the customer service team will also speak English.
But for most non-native English speakers, like myself, this bubble bursts the moment we need customer service for the many, many products and services available online. Language barriers are even more obvious during the pandemic, as companies work to serve more global customers around the clock with fewer people (and as a result, fewer native speakers).
As a native Portuguese speaker, I find myself switching to English whenever I need a company to do something for me faster. But I’m lucky to speak English fluently and comfortably. Not everyone has that option. Even if they do speak English, they may not be as comfortable expressing themselves when they’re already distressed and looking for help.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the device, customer service teams employ countless technology-enabled methods to make the customer experience (CX) better, reduce wait times, and be more empathetic. In reality, most are overlooking the most basic human connection point: language.
Global customers, local loyalty
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.
So why is this still such a big challenge?
Some languages such as Chinese are quite prevalent, yet difficult to service natively. This could be for many reasons, ranging from the vast amount of regional dialects within these languages to cultural nuances around formality, diction and more. Other languages, like German and Dutch, are less prevalent and difficult to justify staffing with an agent full-time. Combine these factors with industry-specific lingo that customer service agents need to express fluently across languages, and you’ve got a complex problem on your hands.
Regardless of these barriers, precise use of language can diffuse tension, put a customer at ease, and quickly get the job done in a difficult situation. The problem is, especially during the pandemic, many companies are forced to do more with less. Airlines, for example, have had to cut tens of thousands of jobs – yet are still under tremendous pressure from high-demand customers around the world. Their customer bases have also shifted as the U.S.’s coronavirus status has forced travel restrictions. So what’s a business to do?
Democratizing language for the CX and beyond
In recent years, technology has become the great equalizer for language around the globe. This is evidenced by a surge in demand for language learning apps like Duolingo, and even the buzz around multilingual artificial intelligence models like GPT-3 from OpenAI. Even with something as nuanced as customer service, technological advances in AI – working with humans in the loop – can empower agents to speak with customers natively in any language.
Beyond these use cases, technology’s democratization of language could lead to a (pun intended) world of possibilities for businesses and their customers. The pandemic has led to many companies working remotely – sometimes with global, distributed teams. One second-order effect is that the location of talent has become somewhat irrelevant. However, for a company trying to find a new market for a product, local language and cultural norms will always 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 opens up as a tool in their employees’ toolset. Even if the head of the Japanese office is an English speaker in Austin, Texas.
So, where do we go from here? The whole world is a lot of ground to cover for any business. Fortunately, there’s a common denominator across all human culture: Language and the role it plays in connecting us to one another. The more we’re able to speak to each other natively, the better we’ll be able to make lasting connections with customers around the globe. Technology could be the next great unlock for cross-cultural human understanding.