Multilingual Call Centers: Meeting the Needs of Limited English Proficient Customers (by Starla Keith)

Multilingual call centers are those that provide services in various language offerings, ensuring the needs of all customers are met. Call centers that provide multilingual support have many advantages over traditional call centers. They create a positive customer experience, increase efficiency and agent productivity, improve customer service standards and drive sales and revenue in new markets. In today’s global business environment, call centers need to offer some level of multilingual support to remain competitive.

One reason that many call centers have shifted to a multilingual business model is to meet the needs of the growing diverse population in the United States. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report analyzing data from the 2007 American Community Survey, and over a time period from 1980 – 2007, the number of people ages five and older who spoke a language other than English at home has more than doubled in the last three decades and at a pace four times greater than the nation’s population growth. In that same time frame, the percentage of speakers of non-English languages grew by 140 percent, while the nation’s overall population grew by 34 percent1.

Another reason call centers decide to deliver services in multiple language offerings is to meet the needs of their customers who are expanding globally and establishing international operations. Providing multilingual support allows call centers to continue servicing its existing customer base while also going after new business opportunities and generating additional revenue.

Once a call center has identified the need to offer some level of multilingual support (and the perceived benefits in doing so), the next step is to determine how this demand will be best met. There are a number of ways calls centers can offer foreign language interpretation and translation support, such as hiring bilingual employees, outsourcing calls to an offshore call center or partnering with a language services provider.

Bilingual Employees

While the use of bilingual employees can be a very effective and cost-efficient strategy when it comes to meeting the demands of more common languages (i.e. Spanish), the same does not hold true when it comes to Languages of Limited Diffusion (LLD). For example, you wouldn’t want to staff a full-time Punjabi bilingual employee if your call center receives just a few Punjabi calls a week. Rather, it would make more sense to outsource those calls to a reliable third party (i.e. a language services provider), where you are benefiting from a per-minute rate structure. By doing this, you will cut costs, while also increasing call center efficiency and agent productivity. However, if your call center receives a significant amount of volume in a particular language, bilingual employees should absolutely be considered a component of your overall language access plan.

It’s important to note that a bilingual is not the same as a professionally trained and highly-qualified interpreter. Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest misconceptions in the language services industry. A bilingual is someone who speaks two languages fluently. An interpreter, on the other hand, is someone who has been professionally trained to mediate between speakers of different languages. Many bilinguals become professional interpreters but only after participating in relevant training programs, and after successfully completing a series of language proficiency examinations. If your call center decides to use bilinguals as interpreters, it’s extremely important to properly evaluate their language competency skills through assessment testing. Call centers can either do this in-house or partner with a reliable third party who offers these services.

Call Center Outsourcing

When it comes to providing support in various language offerings, some call centers may decide to outsource calls to an offshore location. One of the most obvious advantages to call center outsourcing is the cost savings. In countries such as India, the Philippines and Malaysia (where many offshore call centers are located), educated workers can be hired for a fraction of the cost, compared to the United States, Canada and Europe. Additionally, infrastructure and overhead costs are much lower in these countries.

One of the biggest disadvantages to using an offshore call center is having to hand over control of the customer relationship to a third party. And because employees at an offshore call center are not invested in the company, they may not be motivated to provide the caliber of customer service you expect. In addition, off-shoring has the potential to damage a company’s brand, image and reputation, as a result of its negative connotation in today’s business environment.

Partner with a Language Services Provider

A language services provider (or LSP) is a company that offers interpretation, translation, localization and/or language assessment services through either a network of independently contracted interpreters and translators or staffed linguists. While the independent contractor business model is standard practice in the language services industry, some LSP’s do employ linguists.

There are a number of reasons multilingual call centers decide to partner with a language services provider for interpretation and/or translation support. For starters, because LSP’s offer services in a number of language offerings, call centers are able to meet the demands of its increasingly diverse customer base and break into new markets, resulting in an increase in sales and revenue.

As mentioned above, an interpreter, unlike a bilingual, is someone who has been professionally trained to mediate between speakers of different languages. When call centers partner with LSP’s for multicultural support, agents have immediate access to highly-qualified interpreters, those who are prepared to interpret in virtually every industry segment, including financial services, insurance, healthcare and the legal sector. As a result, call centers benefit from accurate and thorough interpretations and the calls are completed in the most efficient manner possible, saving the call center time and money, while ensuring client service levels are consistently met.

Some LSP’s will offer their clients real-time, web–based reporting metrics of language data. Call Center Managers can use the data from these reports to staff bilingual employees (based on top languages/peak volume times), analyze demographics of client metrics and make amendments to corporate-wide initiatives. For example, if the reporting data reveals that Tuesday and Wednesday mornings are the peak call times for Spanish, you may decide to staff bilingual Spanish employees during those shifts. On the other hand, if the reporting data reveals that Thursday and Friday afternoons are the off-peak hours for Spanish calls, and you have Spanish bilingual employees working those shifts, you may decide to readjust the call center schedule accordingly.

This is just one of many examples that demonstrate the true power of real-time reporting of language data for call centers. Call center executives can use this data to better manage costs for interpretation and translation support, while also analyzing trends to better meet the needs of its diverse customer populations. Giving call centers access to real-time language data is a great example of how a language services provider is often viewed as a true strategic partner and an extension of a call center’s overall operations.

Is your multilingual call center currently looking to partner with a language services provider for interpretation and/or translation support? If so, please use the below checklist to make sure you’re selecting the best provider out there.

Your LSP should offer the following:

  • Real-time reporting metrics of language data
  • A completely customizable call intake process (ensuring the fastest connect time possible)
  • 24/7/365 call center support
  • Telephonic interpretation support in at least 200 language offerings
  • Designated Quality Assurance Department dedicated to monitoring and assessing interpreter capabilities
  • IM and online chat customer service support
  • E-mail translation services

Remember, partnering with a language services provider should be considered a component of a successful language access plan, not the only solution. Other options should also be taken into consideration when your call center decides to become multilingual (i.e. staffing bilingual employees). It really comes down to the specific needs of your customer base and what makes the most sense from a cost savings and call center efficiency standpoint.

(1) Language Use in the United States: 2007; American Community Survey Reports


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