Once upon a time, customer service came in one language in the United States: English. For many Americans, that’s all they really need: with only 9% of American adults fluent in more than one language, English remains the default language in everyday commerce for the vast majority of our citizens.
Yet the reality of increased immigration and a globalized economy means that about 20% of all Americans over 5 years of age speak a language other than English at home, representing over 55 million people. Over 62% speak Spanish, and about 15% speak an Asian or Pacific Island language. Nearly 19% speak another Indo-European language such as French, Italian and German. Now, many of them are likely bilingual – most of us know someone who speaks a different language while at home with the family and yet otherwise speak fluent English as well. Clearly, however, a good chunk of our fellow Americans are more comfortable speaking and conducting their lives in a different language than they are in English.
America’s self-professed identity as a melting pot of cultures and languages has never been more relevant. It’s one of the reasons why we have a stable of bi- and multilingual call center agents. Some of the languages our agents speak include Mandarin, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Persian, Malayalam, Italian, Korean, Bengali, German, Japanese, French, and yes, Spanish.
When you’re in the business of customer service like we are, you become very intimate with its many inherent challenges pretty quickly. It’s a people business, after all, and people can be – and often are – unpredictable. Most don’t call customer service because they want to heap compliments on you or the company you represent, but rather because they were unhappy with the product or service they received and want you to know about it. They may want compensation, a replacement, or perhaps simply the opportunity to air their grievances. They may also have recently experienced a family tragedy, or were found at-fault in a car accident just that morning, or had a fight with their teenage daughter the evening before.
In other words, they’re bringing not only their specific complaints about the product in question but also their other pain points in life to the call. Before the agent has even had a chance to speak, the conversation may already be tense and fraught with possible negative outcomes.
Now imagine if that person cannot speak English well, if at all.
Imagine if the agent on the other line, however, did speak the caller’s language. An agent who’s not only bi- or multilingual but also highly educated, knowledgeable about her employer’s products and/or services, and is highly trained in the fine art of customer service.
Most call center agents – including ours – already possess the last three qualifications. But without the ability to offer agents who also speak a caller’s language – both literally and figuratively – customer service remains an unfulfilled promise. As America becomes more diverse and our economy becomes more deeply entrenched in the global community, being able to field a multilingual customer service team will be not only a competitive advantage but an absolute necessity.