How To Achieve Multilingual Support: The Basics


Delivering support to employees who speak multiple languages is like changing a two-dimensional puzzle into a three-dimensional one: Everything is the same, but more complex. Typical IT support operations need qualified staff, the right technologies and documented support procedures. Global IT support organizations need those elements, too — but they also need to provide them in multiple languages.

This article explains how to deliver multilingual support through finding and hiring the right talent, applying technology appropriately and using a global delivery model.

Develop Your Talent Pool Internationally

The first step for providing multilingual support is to find a talent pool of multilingual support agents. Many global employers find that it can be a challenge to find help desk and call center agents that speak more than one language in the United States. Pockets of non-English language speakers can be found — many communities in the southern border states speak Spanish, for example, and northeastern border states often have French-speaking populations. But in terms of productivity, it’s ideal to find agents who can speak three or more languages. The more languages the agent speaks, the more originating countries from which calls can be routed to the agent.

In general, this often means locating your help desk offshore. Many companies establish offshore centers in India to reduce costs. There’s also an abundance of multilingual speakers in European locations, such as Brussels (home of the European Union and a large community of multilingual speakers) and Bucharest, Romania (which has a well-educated population fluent in multiple languages, including English, French, German, Spanish and Italian as well as Eastern European languages).

In addition to finding a multilingual population, you must also ensure that the government is stable and supportive of your business, and that the country offers a solid telecommunications infrastructure.

Once you find your base, you need to establish procedures to manage and retain this vital asset of a multilingual workforce. One challenge is call monitoring. This is a standard practice throughout the United States, and a great tool for employee development and coaching. However, in some countries you’re not allowed to silently monitor or record calls, and so must be creative on how to manage the quality of agent support.

Some of the strategies used by our facilities include sitting side-by-side with an agent to monitor the call personally; placing test calls into the help desk that focus on specific areas such as a certain problem type or material upon which the agent was recently trained; or using role playing as part of ongoing training activities.

European Union countries have other regulations that differ from those in North America. For example, employee- or performance-related data on EU-based employees must remain in the EU. The bottom line is, it’s important to research, understand and comply with regulations specific to the countries with which you do business. Many rules differ from those in North America, and it’s important to understand the issues in advance, or work with a vendor that does, so that you can establish technologies and procedures to comply.

Another key challenge is scheduling and modeling. In addition to making sure that the help-desk agent is versed in the appropriate technology, he or she must also speak the language of the caller. And to deliver true multilingual support, that means finding agents who are native speakers of the caller’s language.

There’s significant backlash in the industry today from complaints regarding agents with poor language skills. All of us have experienced the difficult situation of being on a call with an agent who speaks English, but with such a heavy accent that he or she can’t be understood. One way to resolve this situation is to categorize the agents’ linguistic capabilities by primary or native language, followed by additional languages. Wherever possible, you should route calls to an agent whose native language matches that of the caller. This matching creates additional complexities in the call-routing infrastructure, but often is a customer-driven requirement.

Technologies in Multilingual Support

Finding and deploying the right technologies to manage multilingual support is just as important as finding the right talent pool. A robust telecom solution is a must-have for any multilingual help desk. Technology matches callers with the right agent and routes all calls efficiently and effectively. At TechTeam, we have chosen to use a multiprotocol layer switching (MPLS) backbone for our communications infrastructure, which enables us to transmit both voice and data over the same circuit. This connectivity also allows us to route calls to the right agent and “share” languages more cost effectively.

Callers should be able to self-select desired languages and other options using interactive voice response (IVR) technology; but wherever possible, firms should route calls based on incoming phone number. Inbound calls from France, for example, should be routed to agents whose native language is French. If those agents are busy, calls should overflow to agents who speak French as a second or third language. Another method is to offer callers country-specific numbers that route them to specific agent groups, again with a series of back-up and overflow options. These call routing and flow plans are extremely complex, particularly when compared with similar plans from US-based facilities or from single-language customers, but they’re vital to multilingual centers.

It’s important to establish a solid working relationship with your telecommunications carrier to help minimize disruptions and provide workarounds. One strategy is to negotiate an uptime agreement, where if any part of the network goes down, the carrier is responsible for fixing it within a set period of time, generally less than one hour. Another strategy is to use multiple carriers — as well as multiple technology infrastructure components — for redundancy and business continuity.

Maximizing Scale: Going Global

True global efficiencies come when companies break away from individual help desks in multiple countries and consolidate operations. Leveraging resources across multiple areas helps companies save money, deliver tremendous efficiency, provide consistent service levels, and present better data analytics allowing for actionable measures to improve the IT organization.

Scale is all about managing capacity. If an IT support department receives an average of 10 support requests an hour, it has three choices: staff to handle that level of calls, staff down and provide less responsive service, or staff up to ensure that no one waits. Rarely do organizations choose to overstaff, simply because of the costs involved. But even staffing to maintain average support levels can be costly, because calls never are evenly paced. Most centers will swing between being overstaffed one minute, and understaffed the next, with only the largest centers able to manage the metrics involved in maintaining service levels cost-effectively.

With multiple centers in different countries, companies can transfer calls among facilities to balance out call volumes, maintain consistent response times, deliver native language support, and handle call spikes. They have enough volume of calls to better manage staffing, so they tend to be more efficient. And efficiency means cost savings for everyone.

Depending on your company’s needs and budget, just about any type of arrangement can be made. If you require 24/7 coverage, European customers might best be served by US agents and vice versa depending on time zones. The key is to deliver the call to the most appropriate agent to service the customer. Even though the customer may be in the United States, the skill set to support them may be in another call center somewhere in the world.

A Look into the Future

While companies can do a lot to ensure effective multilingual support, we continue to look ahead to see what the future will bring. One area that I’m excited about is the ability to create a virtual, multilingual help desk. Today companies must choose physical locations for their call centers in countries that offer large populations of multilingual speakers. In the future, new technologies will enable companies to hire agents who work anywhere, in any country. Technology is available today to support home-based agents, and very soon it will be cost effective enough to roll out on a global scale.

Home-based agents will eliminate the need for brick-and-mortar support centers and will dramatically open up the potential talent pool. Agents will be able to work extremely flexible hours, including micro-shifts where they hop on to manage call spikes or to support a customer in an uncommon language. The home-based agent scenario, however, will challenge an already complex call-routing scenario and require significantly more involved telecommunications infrastructure. These advanced technologies will enable businesses to branch out beyond traditional markets and into lower-cost labor markets.

Delivering multilingual IT support is not for novice IT support providers, but can be done with the right approach and the right technology. Concentrate on finding the right people and deploying the right tools, and your IT support organization can provide the help your growing company needs.

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