I have had an epiphany when it comes to language fluency and the ability to serve customers. For most of my career, I believed that as long as an employee can execute the transaction itself, the language comprehension of customer and service professional could be minimal and all would be well. This already has a hole in the theory if you have ever had contact with a non-US call center, but I digress.
The trend in customer service is to deliver exceptional experiences, to create situations that are unexpected and ‘wow’ the customer. Certainly, my clients are moving away from transactional to extraordinary service. It is an admirable goal, and one worth aiming for. But if your service professionals and customers do not conversationally speak the same language, this is difficult to do.
Stranger in a Strange Land
I had the opportunity of a lifetime to work at Disneyland-Paris in the mid-90s on Main Street USA as a merchandise hostess. It was my first job at Disney World in Orlando, so I felt confident my French experience would be a success. Call it youthful arrogance, or optimistic adventurer, but it was especially something that I did not speak French. I could say, “My name is Stacey,” “Where is…?” But for anything nuanced, I was lost. (J'étais perdu. :( )
The result: my work days were mostly uneventful and transactional. I scanned merchandise, stated the amount in my stumbling highly American accented French. This was not an easy thing to do in French with what seemed sixteen syllable numbering system. Pleasantly, I would say my best, “Au revoir,” and be done.
Technically I did my job, but I can’t say I enjoyed it or was even good at it from a hospitality experience. It was also a lonely day. I could not engage with guests to the same degree I could at home. But if the guest spoke English, it was completely different for them and for me. The relief of being understood and connecting changed a short transaction to an experience.
Do you speak…
On the flip side, as a customer, I have spent many nights on cruise ships. 100% of the time housekeeping staff is not from the US, and many times English is their second or even third language. The steward is typically pleasant and professional, but the relationship is formal and sometimes strained when I ask for something or need assistance.
But one time our cabin steward was from Asia, and his English was completely fluent. We could share our stories and laugh with him and he with us. It made the experience of service so much fuller. In our mind, we believed he was a better steward. In hindsight though, I bet his raw housekeeping skills weren’t among the best those many professionals who have served us in the past.
The Take Aways for Your Organization
- Sharing nuanced stories and detailed information is critical to delivering excellent customer service. This requires beyond basic language proficiency.
- Helping employees learn the main language of your organization or customers is in no way discriminatory. It is helping them professionally develop. In my experience, most companies completely ignore their non-native speakers for development for anything except compliance training. That is sad, insulting, and certainly companies are not maximizing their talent.
- There is a difference between comprehension and understanding. Comprehension is the two parties get what the other needs. Understanding is when the parties can hear what is been said, unsaid, and implied.
This is an important topic as it relates to customer satisfaction, staffing strategies, and talent development. There is also much more to say about this in regards to call center operations. I will leave that for another blog, on another day. Until then au revior et bonne chance!