Language skills give a competitive edge in customer service

Language learning

Language training is an option worth considering when you want to serve your customers better. In this blog article, we explain why.

In an international environment, employees’ language skills are constantly put to the test. New customer groups and new markets may create pressure. The need for language skills doesn’t usually come as a surprise, but it may be difficult to understand the extent at first.

Language skill requirements also concern customer service professionals, regardless of the number of personnel. Hiring new employees who are fluent in the new language is an easy solution. The situation is more complicated if many people are needed, or if the required combination of language skills and professional expertise is difficult to find.

In such a case, the only feasible solution is to improve current employees’ language skills.

When does the need for language skills in customer service become obvious?

Language skill requirements become a reality when a company enters new markets abroad. If the company sells consumer goods, customers will ask questions online or by phone sooner or later. The company must be ready for this. Even if the company has a local reseller, customer inquiries are often forwarded to the company.

The large number of inquiries may come as a surprise. The number of inquiries from customers in a new market is impossible to predict. If there are too many inquiries to respond to by phone or via chat, the customer experience will leave much to be desired. Customer service should be especially good when a company is entering a new market.

An increasingly multilingual customer base means more extensive language skill requirements. The change usually takes place gradually. If only a few customer inquiries go unanswered because of a language barrier, the issue will probably be unaddressed. When such inquiries are received on a daily basis, something needs to be done urgently. English is a good start, but it’s not always enough.

Customers are also served through channels other than phone and electronic channels. For example, store employees are engaged in customer service work all the time, regardless of their job titles. Language skills are also required in a brick-and-mortar environment, where the geographical location is a key factor: Russian is needed in eastern Finland, while Swedish is required in the bilingual municipalities in western Finland. Tourism plays a major role in northern Finland. English is the minimum requirement, but other languages are also needed to serve the large number of travelers from Asia.

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Language skill requirements vary between countries and by geographical location.

Sometimes companies decide to serve their current and future customers even better than before. Providing services in Russian in eastern Finland is a good example of this. The service experience is more pleasant when the customer is served in their native language. Studies show that people prefer to be served in their own language. If a company has localized its website for the target market but only serves customers in English, the customer experience is inconsistent and confusing. Read our earlier blog article for more information about localization.

When the focus is on customers and the customer experience, the goal is to serve customers as well as possible. The company must ensure that a language barrier is not preventing dialogue between the customer and the company. Watch our video to see how Nivos benefited from language training in an increasingly international environment.

Understanding requires language skills, but an understanding of customers’ cultures is also invaluable. Cultural knowledge creates more favorable conditions for communication and service. Watch our video to see how cultural coaching helped Finavia to improve its services in China.

What languages are needed?

The need for language skills depends on the company, its location and target markets. Some companies focus almost entirely on international markets, with minor operations in the home market.

The Confederation of Finnish Industries published its language policy (in Finnish) in December 2017.  According to the studies carried out for the policy, Russian is the most necessary language in Finland, although the need varies seasonally. Russian is followed by Chinese and Estonian. Major European languages, such as Italian, German, Spanish and English, are less important—but still important, of course. The same applies to Finland’s trade and trade partners in 2019, based on Finnish Customs’ country statistics.. Finland has extensive trade not only with European countries, but also with China and the United States.

Why is language training needed?

Ideally, the necessary language skills can be acquired by hiring new employees who also have the necessary professional expertise. However, this is seldom possible if a Finnish company needs skills in languages other than English and Swedish. For example, if a customer service team needs several new employees who know Russian, it’s usually impossible to fill all the positions at once. Smaller companies have smaller recruitment needs, but may have the same challenge: an imbalance between language skills and professional expertise.

Instead of trying to hire new people, the company can focus on improving its current employees’ language skills. This investment often comes with fewer risks: if several customer service professionals are provided with language training, and one of them decides to leave the company, most of the language competence still remains with the company.

In recruitment, costs begin to accumulate as early as the initial selection phase. It also takes time to provide a new employee with the necessary induction training. When language training is provided to a current employee, they will be able to continue doing productive work alongside the training.

The benefits of tailored language training

Tailored language training is the best solution for individual needs. After the current skill level has been determined, language skills will be improved by focusing on development needs. For example, an employee’s listening and reading comprehension skills may be excellent, but they may have difficulties with speaking or writing in the foreign language in question. All these skills are needed in customer service.

The benefits of tailored language training also include being able to immediately use what you’ve learned—this takes a little longer if you’re learning a new language. When you’re actively using the language in your work, you’ll be able to brush up on your skills in no time.

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How to improve customer service professionals’ language skills?

Tailored language training is the best solution if the need to improve language skills is urgent and individual. If the need is less urgent, there are more options.

Self-learning

Using digital material for self-learning is a good way to improve language skills for customer service. Self-learning is independent of time and place. If the employer offers an opportunity for 15–30 minutes of self-learning per day, for example, the required level of repetition is achieved. Coordinated learning sessions don’t interfere with the flow of customer service, and the employee can continue learning in their free time if they have the motivation.

Teacher-driven learning

Teacher-driven learning is suitable for small groups and individual learners. The learners are provided with encouragement and feedback on their development. In small groups, the members help each other improve, because everyone has the same goal. Teacher-driven learning requires some coordination. Finding a time that suits everyone is key. Choosing a place is easier, as training sessions can be attended over the phone, for example.

Hybrid learning

Hybrid learning combines the freedom of self-learning with the synergies of teacher-driven learning. Self-learning materials can be used to develop grammar and vocabulary skills, for example, while the teacher helps the learners improve their speaking and writing skills. These elements support one another and also ensure that learning takes place regularly. Individual feedback from the trainer supports high motivation.

Language skills at the core of customer acquisition and satisfaction

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of language skills in reaching new target markets and target groups. Language skill requirements may change when the operating environment changes, or when the company decides to seek international growth. However, customers must be served at all times, even after the deal has been closed. This is why customer service professionals’ language skills are critical.

Recruiting new employees is one solution. Another is to improve customer service professionals’ language skills extensively. This is a profitable investment that also protects the company from the risks posed by employee turnover. Understanding the customer is at the core of customer satisfaction: the customer must feel that they’ve been heard. This can best be ensured by communicating in their own language.

Has your company recently entered new markets? Do new languages pose challenges in customer service? Do your company’s customer service professionals need tailored language training? Contact us, and our language training experts will help you choose the solution that best meets your needs.

Visit our online store for language training in English!