You may have seen the clever ad about the young German Coast Guard officer who receives a Mayday call from a British ship that is going down.  “We’re sinking, we’re sinking!” yells the Englishman.  The German calmly asks: “Vat are you sinking (thinking) about?” Watch YouTube Commercial. It’s very funny – as long as you aren’t the Englishman going down to Davy Jones’ locker!

While most calls you receive are not life or death in nature, properly understanding your customers is a must-do in today’s world. A survey we conducted a few years ago indicated that 88% of centers receive foreign language calls, and 46% of those use third party interpretation services to handle some or all of those calls, while 54% handle all such calls in-house. However, like any other function, language interpretation should be reviewed periodically for optimization.  This means making sure you are providing good service while getting the most value for your investment.

Things managers should consider on the financial side of the equation include:

  • Overall costs and benefits.  This includes calculating the cost of your current interpretation program and comparing it to alternatives.  Are you hiring for language skills currently?  Do you pay a premium for such skills?  Are you getting new language calls that you weren’t before?  Do you have a calculated value per call (especially for inbound sales centers)?  What is the benefit of being able to service the call well, as compared with the cost? Do you have some sense of the loyalty and positive word-of-mouth that good interpretation generates for you – – the positive impact of a positive experience may be magnified for your brand in the case of a recent immigrant who does not speak good English.
  • Multi-channel.   Are you able to handle written interactions?  How quickly can you respond in writing to situations that may constitute an opportunity to build loyalty or secure a sale?
  • Risk Management.  How quickly and accurately can you deal with situations which may pose a risk to your company?  Does your product area include perishable foods, pharmaceuticals, medical services, chemicals or other items which could present risks to health and property?  A good interpretation service can be more important than a good legal department in protecting your company – – and the well-being of your customers.

A case study we authored involving two General Mills call center chronicled an optimization exercise which went through a structured process of decision-making.  It included piloting a new vendor at one center while maintaining the second center with the incumbent vendor as a “control”.  Ultimately, both centers were converted to the new vendor. The results were impressive, including the following:

  • The cost per contact in the phone channel went down from $2.20 to about $1.45, a savings of almost one third.
  • The new vendor was able to take care of other channels, email in particular.  Documents were translated and returned within a couple of days and without the mad scramble and uncertain costs that had happened in the past.
  • The new, comprehensive solution was superior in terms of avoiding or controlling problems arising from product quality issues, which is important for a company in the perishable food business.  This aspect was appreciated by the company’s risk managers.

To quote the manager from the General Mills case study: “Foreign language customers are as important as our other customers – they just happen to speak a different language.  We wanted to optimize our overall language services for the good of those customers and the bottom line of our company.“  This function needs to be re-evaluated from time to time and optimized, so that money can be saved, risk can be lessened and service can be improved.

Manager’s Tip: Many managers consider foreign language calls marginal and don’t monitor them.  My advice is to listen to these calls regularly from your tape archive.  If you happen to speak a foreign language, call your center from time to time yourself, disguise your voice and see if the process is working well.  I have called centers speaking Italian, and find that there is nothing like experiencing language interpretation from the user’s perspective.

“Contact Center Economics 101” articles are written by Bruce Belfiore (Harvard MBA) to spotlight practical opportunities for financial improvement of contact center operations. Contact Bruce at

Topics: Contact Center Economics 101, Contact Center Articles, Language Interpretation