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An out-of-hours linguistic plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox?

by Rob Addy  |  July 20, 2012  |  2 Comments

Local language voice support is expensive. Different providers offer different degrees of coverage. Some claim to provide support in 120+ languages for instance. But is this really real? What is the coverage split by product mix and technical expertise / experience level? How does this vary by time of day and time zone? Quoting a banner headline number doesn’t really tell anyone anything. It is misleading and can be undermined by competitors picking holes in local market scenarios very very easily.

Some providers don’t claim overly inflated language coverage numbers. In fact, some would undoubtedly claim (if they ever went on record for such things) to offer a number significantly lower than 120 during working hours and a lower number still out of hours (the exact number being defined by the inbound customer’s product group / technical discipline requirement and shift patterns (i.e. the multi language skills of the agents on duty that night). But the difference is that these providers have a bullet proof process behind their statements and have made significant investments to actually make it work in practice. They augment their out of hours coverage reduction with the use of machine translation for chat sessions if customers want to go down this route. I.e. A Swedish customer calling the local Swedish support number at 9pm in Stockholm will be told (by a very polite IVR system using perfect native Swedish phrasing) that he/she can speak to someone now in either English, French, or German (i.e. a context specific subset of today’s available out of hours languages that are most relevant to the caller e.g. a southern European caller may only be offered English or Spanish instead). If they don’t want to do this they can opt for an online chat session with a non-native Swedish speaker using real time machine translation into Swedish. Or if they prefer they can request a call back at a time of their choosing when the staff Swedish speakers are on shift.

An alternative high end solution is the potential to use a contracted real time translation bureau to have an interpreter on the line as the call is being conducted – This is obviously not the cheapest option but I could see it potentially working very well for the higher priced higher levels of service in order to help differentiate them and be seen to add significantly more value. A professional interpreter + the world’s best technical expert in the specific subject area of concern is likely to be much much better than the best person that knows about the specific product and who happens to speak the required language… In fact, such a process model would make the 120+ language provider’s approach look a little silly.

But why did I pick Swedish as the example? Well it demonstrates another point. A software provider I know well offered Swedish localized products and Swedish voice support – Was Sweden a major market for their solutions? Not really. But they had one massive customer in Sweden that they had agreed to do this for. What I am getting at here is the need to take into account the commercial realities of the subject. If your Latvian sales team is willing to sign up for X million in sales if corporate deliver product and/or support in Latvian (and product management and sales management believe that they will actually deliver the sales) then they (the decision makers) should balance the costs of delivery and the X million revenue / margin return and make a value based judgement. Maybe they should. Maybe they shouldn’t. But only they will know which way is right.

As for local language support being a competitive differentiator… This implies that you may be overly focusing on the wrong constituency within your target customer base. The average CIO and VP of Operations are unlikely to be swayed by 24×7 local language support if there is a viable alternative in place (as described above) – In fact it could be argued that 24×7 local language cover is an expensive luxury that they should forego. However, if you are only talking to the technical rank and file then yes, local language cover is more important to them… But should you really be talking to those folks in isolation…? Maybe, that’s the real question that needs to be addressed here.

Remember that local language support is only one potential enabler of the support process. Its role is to facilitate the effective communication between a customer with an issue and the most appropriate technical resource within the support provider’s organization that can help resolve it. If the most appropriate technical resource doesn’t speak every language  that your customers speak then you have to come up with a process to allow them to communicate with those in need or accept that you may very well be compromising service quality by seemingly offering a better service in the customer’s native language…


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Category: support-operations  support-processes  technologies-underpinning-support  

Rob Addy
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
More years than I care to remember in the IT industry

Welcome to my blog! I post about all things services related from the provider perspective. End-users are welcome to read but please be aware that you may sometimes find its content unsettling. I will endeavour to post frequently (as it's a lot cheaper than a therapist) but please forgive me if other more mundane activities occasionally get in the way...Read my official Gartner bio here

Thoughts on An out-of-hours linguistic plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox?

  1. Jon says:

    Rob – are you seeing enterprise software vendors move towards providing more language support options or move further away from providing language options, i.e. focusing just on English?

  2. Rob Addy says:

    Hi Jon

    Good question. Unfortunately, I don’t have an equally good succinct answer… We definitely are seeing an increase in the number of providers that are including 24×7 cover into their base level service offerings as they struggle to demonstrate and articulate their value. This IS having a significant impact on the out of hours language coverage models that we are seeing. Many are just dodging the issue and pretending everything is fine. Others are actually doing something positive about it. Hence the purpose of this post to highlight good practice in this area.

    As for the general language support issue I think it is less clear cut. Some segments are increasing their language cover significantly (primarily these would be providers serving the SMB market or providers who are extending the scope of their support offerings to provide more super user or line of business power user support i.e. some SaaS providers.). In other areas we are seeing rationalization of language coverage to local office hours only or the dropping of support for some less commonly used languages. Local language support is expensive as you know. And support margins whilst being good aren’t immune from pressure.

    Here at Gartner Towers we have mused over what the minimum number of languages one would need to offer to be able to realistically claim to offer global support. Our estimations show that between 12 – 20 languages would be statistically sufficient for enterprise solutions depending on the application segment and its corresponding user communities / support consumers. Anything more than that should probably considered as geographical overkill and we would suggest providers ask regional sales teams to stump up the pre-requisite license sales growth and renewals to justify the additional costs.

    Technical audiences have been conditioned over the past 30 years to expect US English to be the default position. We’ll not debate the rights or wrongs of this now. By and large price and technical capability are still the primary purchasing drivers and the associated support models are secondary. Will this change? We hope so. Will it change anytime soon? Maybe not.

    One other angle to look at is to consider what the crowd can do for you as the provider. If you can enlist a bunch of evangelists around the world who are happy to provider local language support on your behalf then this is obviously a fantastic opportunity to improve your service quality without increasing the costs… This isn’t a trivial option but it is something that some providers benefit from…

    Look out for formal language related research streams from Gartner in 2013 🙂

    Kind regards


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