Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Your Language

In its recent survey on global consumer preferences on the web, “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy,” Common Sense Advisory found that three-quarters of 3,002 respondents in 10 non-English-speaking countries are more likely to buy a product if the post-sales support is in their language. That customer care may be delivered through FAQs or chat at the company’s website – or by a call to a contact center. But the likelihood of a customer from Indonesia calling a U.S. number and reaching someone who speaks his language is very remote.

The same holds true inside a single country where multiple languages are spoken. Based on our research on foreign-language inquiries, we found that Spanish-speaking Americans might not easily get a customer service representative (CSR) who speaks their language. That creates a disconnect for companies, public institutions, and government agencies in the United States that market their “hablamos español” capability, signage, and bilingual packaging or brochures, but can’t satisfy the post-sales or follow-up expectations in spoken interactions.

How widespread is this problem? We spoke recently with Ivan Venzin, director of marketing at Arizona-based CyraCom (#2 on our list of the 15 largest interpreting providers), who shared some data from a soon-to-be-published report on contact centers. The study of more than 400 U.S.-based contact centers shows that 34% don’t have formal support for inquiries in other languages. Of those that support Spanish-language inquiries, 55% rely on third-party interpreting specialists such as Certified Languages International (#10 on our list of the 15 biggest), CyraCom, Language Line Solutions (#1), and Lionbridge (#8) to provide on-the-phone interpreting (OPI) to any organization that needs interactions in other languages for their call centers.

The OPI market in the U.S. pivots around two intersecting major demands, regulatory compliance and private sector requirements:

  • On the compliance side, public institutions such as hospitals and the commercial firms that support them – like health insurance companies – must provide their limited-English proficient (LEP) patients with access to information while conforming to the HIPAA Privacy Rule. This demand for LEP services extends to judicial, public safety, and other government functions.
  • Commercial enterprises need to complete the customer life cycle loop for non-English-speaking customers. For them, it’s a way to generate revenue, increase market share opportunities, as well as comply with federal government rules when contracting with it.

To meet the large growth in volume that it’s seen and fill the OPI gap in the customer experience, CyraCom’s Venzin told us that the company is opening a new 62,000 square foot facility in Houston, Texas, to support its contact center customers. It plans to hire more than 400 employees for the facility in the coming year, adding to its current roster of 1,200 at centers in Arizona and New Mexico. Why Houston? Venzin cited the availability of good space and access to communities that speak the languages Cyracom supports. For example, as America’s fourth-biggest city, Houston has the third-largest Hispanic population in the country, large Nigerian and Russian expatriate communities, and a continuing stream of new immigrants from around the world. As a multi-ethnic city, Houston has its own interpreting needs in languages such as Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Urdu, and American Sign Language.

CyraCom’s OPI service model rests on hiring full-time interpreters for its contact centers in the United States, which Venzin says distinguishes the company from competitors that use offshore call centers or independent contractors working from their homes. He added that the new contact center in Houston will allow the company to continue its strategy of generating more operational efficiencies through systematic hands-on training of its full-time employees, increased oversight of quality assurance, and opportunities for side-by-side interpreter collaboration.

Common Sense Advisory sees this approach to a centralized contact center staffed by full-time interpreters as reflecting three general market trends: 1) the back-to-the-office movement championed by Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, with its emphasis on increased collaboration and synergy; 2) the move toward re-shoring, or bringing jobs back to the United States from offshore locations (or in the case of CyraCom, keeping them in the U.S.); and 3) an increased concern with information integrity and security spawned by commercial data breaches and government surveillance.

With some suppliers such as CyraCom opting for full-time, in-country contact centers, the question is whether this interpreting model becomes the norm for OPI. For most LSPs offering OPI services, price pressures and the continuing allure of offshore business models will keep the production models abroad and operating out of home offices. It’s too early to tell whether the full-time contact center approach will yield a premium price in the marketplace. Common Sense Advisory will continue monitoring the market to track interpreting demand and supply.

By: Donald A. DePalma