International export multilingual websites

by Colin Bryant, TelecomsAdvice

The world is shrinking. The "domestic" market for British companies already includes 15 countries with 11 major languages, not including the 2.3 million people in England and Wales alone for whom English is not the first language.

Go beyond the home front, and a world of tens of thousands of languages opens up. Speakers of all these languages can access millions of websites from their own PCs, wherever they happen to live. Put a helpdesk number on a company home page and who knows who might ring up?

GBPmillions or billions in lost contracts

Millions, or probably billions, of pounds of business is lost each year as British businesses fail to win contracts overseas. Lulled into a false sense of security by the number of people from other countries who speak English, many British companies make little effort to sell in a foreign language. 

Recent DTI research shows that one in four British exporters faces or has faced a language barrier. A company could have the best IT product in the world, but that huge Korean contract is more likely to go to the German company which has translated all its manuals and promotional literature into Korean before winning the business.

Our reluctance to invest in professional translation is extremely shortsighted. Everyone has heard the story about the liquidators sorting through the papers of a failed business only to find a faxed order from a German firm. It would have saved the company but no one had bothered to try to translate it.

Sometimes we make a bit of an effort, but fail to use a reputable supplier. This results in translation howlers such as the beer manufacturer Coors translation of its slogan "Turn it loose" into Spanish where it read, "Suffer from diarrhoea"!

So what is the solution? Mastering one or two foreign languages on top of a full week's work is a tall order. For a company with a clear target market or region with one main language, for example Central and Latin America, investing in training staff to speak Spanish will quickly pay dividends.

More complicated is the situation where a company is trying to sell its product into several countries at once. Feeling faint-hearted at the prospect of learning Greek, Italian, Mandarin and Russian all at once is no excuse for giving up completely!

How technology can help

The good news is that technology is being harnessed to overcome some of the language problems facing you. Capitalising on the increased speed of communication and the merging of computers and telephone systems, services and products have been developed to overcome the language barriers.

For example, it is now possible to pick up the telephone and request a professional interpreter in any one of over 100 languages. Within seconds, someone is at the end of the line, ready to interpret whatever you need to say.

If a salesperson wants to make a call to a potential buyer in Russia, a conference call is set up with all three parties on the line. Even if the Russian contact speaks fairly good English, the interpreter can be used simply to get past the unco-operative switchboard or pass on a message for someone to ring back.

If you are paying for the interpreter by the minute, it makes good sense to spend a few pounds on making the connection within minutes, rather than shouting desperately down the phone for quarter of an hour in the hope that someone will eventually understand what you want - especially if you end up hanging up frustrated.

Telephone interpreting services can spirit away the language barrier between a company and its business contacts by using digital audio-conferencing equipment, linked up to a fully integrated CTI (computer telephony integration) system. As far as you are concerned, this means that the telephone system is connected to the computer and so that when customers call in, their details pop up on your screen.

If, for example, you have not been paid for a delivery to a client in Italy, what do you do? Do you chase around for your main contact (the only one who speaks English) on behalf of your accounts department? Or do you tell them to go ahead and phone the Italian company's accounts department themselves, using a telephone interpreter? Let the back office staff speak to each other and leave you to get on with bringing in more sales!

Streamline overseas distribution

Another use being made of this technology is to short-circuit distribution systems. Jaguar cars, for example, used to have a distributor in each of its markets. The distributor handled all communications with the local dealers in each country.

A major investment in IT at Jaguar's home base in Coventry meant that the role of overseas distributors became redundant. All of the 700 local dealers were issued with PCs linked up to the central computer database in the UK. A whole layer of distribution was cut out, resulting in increased efficiency and closer contact between the dealers on the ground and head office.

There was only one problem. What to do when the dealers' computers didn't work? A Japanese dealer could order all his spare parts using user-friendly software on his own PC. But when the system went down, he needed to speak to one of the IT specialists in Coventry.

Telephone interpreting provided Jaguar with a simple solution to the problem. Using dedicated DDI (direct dialling in) numbers, the dealers are able to call the IT department and get through immediately to an interpreter who speaks Japanese. While the dealer is briefing the interpreter about the problem, a teleconference is set up with the IT engineer at Jaguar. The interpreter then relays the problem to him and off they go, sorting it out together on the line.

Jaguar currently has instant interpreting in the six main languages of its dealers. It can concentrate on the IT skills of its engineers, rather than trying to recruit people who can both solve computer problems and speak other languages - not easy!

Website visitors from all over the world will expect you to call them

Internet customers will come to expect a "Call Me" button facility, which allows them to request a call from the company whose website interests them. "Call Me" requests can come from anywhere in the world at any time of day.

It will not be possible to ignore these requests, which could be for more detail on one of your products, or for information on whether you are qualified to tender for a large contract. You will want to ring back immediately with an interpreter on the line, just in case there is a problem. You will also want to confirm any sales information requested in writing, in the language of the potential customer.

Instant interpreting. Instant translation. These will be the tools of the movers and shakers in the new world of e-commerce.

Get talking to more customers - one to one

The world of international trade is changing fast. Improved communications allow people to access information about products and services from anywhere in the world quickly and easily.

This represents a great opportunity for those companies nimble enough to adapt to doing more business one to one with customers, than selling through hierarchical distribution channels. Part and parcel of this relationship is good communication, which means no language barriers. Don't wait for this fact to dawn on your competitors. Act now and get talking to the world market!

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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