Multilingual Customer Support Lessons

Posted on January 14, 2015

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When it comes to multilingual customer support, agents just don't know what they don't know.

By Heather Shoemaker, Language I/O Co-Founder

miscommunication.jpgAt Language I/O we've learned that the devil is truly in the details when it comes to keeping customers happy across many languages. And when you begin the process of quick-time translation between English-speaking agents and customers of many languages - it can become like that "telephone" game we used to play as kids. You whisper something to the kid next to you, he passes it down the line and "I ate peanuts today" rapidly devolves to "Why skate? Lean butts will sway!" OK... maybe it's not that bad but you get the idea.

First a bit of background. My company's software products automate the process of translating email (and other) support content for support agents. Over time we've had to adapt our features to make sure our translations are not just accurate (no "lean butts"), but culturally appropriate. An example will give you a better idea of what I mean.

A few years ago one of our clients who is a top-three social media company, was launching into Germany for the first time. They were using our LinguistNow® Response product embedded inside Oracle Service Cloud to automate machine translation of incoming email support questions so they could understand what was being asked. LinguistNow® was providing a rapid-turnaround human translation of their agents' responses back into German.  Easy enough, right?

Well it all worked fine...technically. But the client was noticing that some of their German customers weren't expressing as high a satisfaction rating as they would have expected, given the professional, human translations of their agents' responses. Here's what was happening.

The German customer would ask a very formal, German question such as this (translating it into formal English here). 

Hello Sir,

I am having difficulty editing my profile photo. I would very much appreciate your guidance in this process. Your help is greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

Joseph

Because the incoming question was always machine translated - and as we all know machine translation is not perfect - the formality was getting lost in what the agent saw. The agent would see an informal question, all niceties stripped away, and would respond in-kind and informally. 

Hey,

No problem! All you need to do is navigate to the My profile link...[etc.]

Talk soon,

Tom

When LinguistNow® passed the informal English response to the human, German linguists, the linguists would translate it as-is, informal tone and all. The ultimate response viewed by the German customer of this social media platform, was accurately translated but culturally inappropriate.

It took a few days for us to figure out why the satisfaction ratings in particular locales were so low. Once we figured it out, we fixed it by altering the LinguistNow® API calls to not just pass the agent's English response in to the German linguists for translation, but also the original German question. We added a note to the linguists indicating that their translation of the English into German needed to match the tone of the original German question NOT the tone of the English agent's response.  Basically, please make the tone more formal than what the English agent might provide.

As expected, the German customer satisfaction ratings increased. 

The lesson we learned was that a product might work flawlessly from a technical perspective, but when you are are dealing in translation of support communications, it's not just a matter of language translation. Customer support satisfaction requires proper innuendo and a cultural understanding that straight translation tools can never provide.

 

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