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The Tower of Babel Language and Going Global

In what language do you deliver your outsourced or captive shared service?  Local or UK English or Global English (and there is a difference)?  When I was at IBM, and you received an RFP from a “large multi-national who operates in 90 countries” the part on what language the client wanted services delivered in, was always one of the most discussed sections.  The language discussions with the client would go something like this: -

Q: “When you say you want a local language for 30 countries – is that for voice, chat, the HRIS system, help text, documentation, training, or something else?  And is it for some of these or all of these?”

A: “Good question. As the RFP team we never really thought about it – so why don’t you give us the price for doing all of these in all 30 languages and then we will decide.  Or better yet, can you make it pick and choose – so give us a price for each language and each area and then we can decide.”

Q: “For the employee service desk, you want your employees to have someone answer the phone and deal with their queries in their local language.  Can you tell me how many calls are made today by country/language?”

A: “We don’t have a voice service desk today for all these countries/languages, so we don’t know what the volume will be.”

Questions and answers like these continue and then the debate begins on what works best for the service model, what provides an ROI, and what is affordable, even if there is no financial return.  For example, from a service model perspective, it is very hard for the outsourced provider (or for the people working in your in-house SSC) to have employees call in Spanish, where the help text is in English. It makes for a tough environment to provide the right level of customer service and support. 

In countries where the employee population is small, and their native language is unique (so Finland would be a good example), the volume of calls will not keep one person fully utilised, so are you willing to pay for someone to be there “just in case” a call comes from a Finnish speaker?  And of course, your provider cannot just have one Finnish speaker, they need at least two to cover holidays and other absences. My experience is in HR, but the challenge of language is relevant for all BPO processes.

Whether you are building your global SSC or looking to outsource, having a clear strategy on language is important.  The strategy needs to include which languages for which media – voice, documentation, technology. 

Language is emotive; it is the “flagship” for culture.  As part of a global SSC or outsourcing programme, countries do not want to give up services in local language, even if financially it might be for the “greater good”.  The governance process for determining the strategic direction for languages, from spoken to written, is critical to the success of any global programme.  Being able to create the right internal cultural agreement, especially with smaller employee populations or countries where the language requirements are unique, will help you create the right foundation to enable the desired transformation, whether you build your own SSC or “buy” through an outsourcing provider. 

Like the tower of Babel, one language may not be enough, but 30 is probably too many.

From Barbara Hodge at SSON (@ssonetwork or

I like how Mary Sue Rogers shares "typical" responses customers offer in response to a provider's query on language requirements: "As the RFP team we never really thought about it" is just one! What you realize is that, without much thought to what is actually NEEDED, customers want it all – at least at the right price.

But how do you really identify those services that should be delivered in a local language versus those that work in just English, bearing in mind, of course, requirements across different media like voice, documents, and technology? You need to have one overall strategy and that needs to be guided by a governance process. If you show any weakness it will be the beginning of the end…

Article by Mary Sue Rogers

Initial Posting on SSON - The Tower of Babel – Language and Going Global

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Posted On : 21-04-16

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