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The Trouble with Staffing, Managing, & Scaling Multilingual Contact Centers

The Messages and Agents Lost in Translation

Behind the glass windows of the United Nations are the most respected and influential interpreters on Earth. Their job is to translate almost 7,000 distinct languages into the six official languages used by the delegates from United Nations’ member states.

To make this possible, the United Nations’ Department for General Assembly and Conference Management employs “several hundred language professionals for workstations in New York, Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, and Santiago. Before they can sit in and speak on behalf of world leaders, prospective interpreters must pass a ‘competitive examination for language professionals,’ which proves they are able to comprehend every imaginable accent, in addition to coping with issues of speed and style.”

“Moreover, interpreters must find proper cultural equivalents and take cultural context into account. A thorough knowledge of both language and culture is thus required.”

Meanwhile, inside the CX department of many enterprise companies, contact center managers do not have access to these resources but still scale divisions of agents engaging the demands in every language, accent, and style. And while the client base may not include as many world leaders as the United Nations, the issues they encounter are personal and have fewer outlets for resolution. 

Staffing a contact center presents the single most challenging problem for enterprise businesses scaling in non-English markets. Roughly 60 percent of businesses say the biggest challenge in providing support beyond a contact center’s primary language is finding and retaining in-house bilingual agents. From housing regional teams to hiring and retaining bilingual agents, multilingual customer support teams hit businesses in the bottom line where it hurts, or helps, the most. Most customer support leaders feel frustrated and even helpless in the face of the challenges of managing multilingual customer support.

Brands risk losing a significant amount of business by allowing these long-standing multilingual support problems to persist. This is especially true in 2022 when customers expect real-time, native-language conversations to happen seamlessly, live, and across digital channels.

Hiring and Retaining Multilingual Agents is an Expensive, Logistical Nightmare

Hiring workers is a challenge in any industry, but with little to no career advancement opportunities for agents working in customer support, agents turn over at notoriously high rates. Struggling to control employee retention is not only frustrating; it is expensive. Being in a constant state of onboarding new employees only to see top performers and new recruits alike pursue opportunities elsewhere costs organizations time to scale and in reputation (High turnover rates are often interpreted as a sign of an unsustainable work environment to would-be applicants). A workforce in a constant state of flux is inevitable, but the risks can be mitigated with long-term plans and doors left open. There are also setbacks to an organization’s efforts to create the collaborative environment a majority of CX professionals prefer and inter-divisional partnerships that build stronger teams. To say nothing of the loss of institutional knowledge that moves to other brands when incumbents accept work elsewhere.

To offer 24/7 support takes at least six agents. Add to that any sort of need for additional seasonal staffing, and scaling becomes a logistical nightmare. For customer service centers taking major milestones into account, such as holidays and timing their hiring process, hiring for language adds an additional layer of complication that can make scaling that much more challenging. 

How do you prioritize skill sets and connect with a talent pool large enough to fill the need? If you hire for location and language, you likely cannot also hire for skill. Agents that offer all three are unicorns, not readily available in the market.

You write job descriptions, allocate a budget, develop training programs, and establish how the new workforce connects with the organization. Now, to catch up with customer expectations, you may struggle to add a multilingual knowledge base to the checklist. 

These challenges, and more, are not unique. In fact, they are more common than managers might realize among their peers. Scaling contact centers with multilingual customer service agents is a barrier to better CSAT, NPS, FCR, and quality scores. Nearly 60 percent of businesses responding to a 2021 survey by the International Customer Management Institute said recruiting and retaining in-house multilingual agents was their biggest barrier to providing support beyond their contact center’s primary language. 

Why are Good Customer Service Agents Hard to Find and Keep?

Even though customer experience executives are enjoying a renewed interest in well-designed customer experiences, many of those plans seem to cut out the heart of the initiative: The employee experience. To wit, the most recent projections from the United States Department of Labor anticipate no growth for customer service representatives through 2030. In fact, there is even a chance for regression. 

Economic forces are also driving people out of customer service positions. Incumbents throughout the United States report they receive minimum wage and work for minimal, if any, commission, according to data presented by Indeed. The community-sourced data also show customer service representatives with at least a high school education can easily find better-paying jobs elsewhere within the hospitality industry. Those who choose to stay in customer service are mostly directed to pick up application-specific skill sets, such as proficiency with an off-the-shelf customer relationship management (CRM) platform or to obtain professional certifications for highly regulated industries, such as financial services. 

When these factors are compiled, contact center agents with any multilingual skills do not have many reasons to advance their skills in the workplace – let alone stay in these positions. 

Technology, not staffing, will solve the language problem in customer contact centers. Time is running out on the effectiveness of locating support centers in areas that speak your markets’ languages. Doing so is not sustainable, scalable, or cost-effective.

Algorithms & Translation Technology May Be Accurate, but They Do Not Comprehend

Countless studies by professional linguists and amateur desktop users everywhere have found errors within automated translators. Most of these applications even lack the programming to recognize when the user is converting the initial phrase back into its native language. Yet in the absence of better in-house solutions, many call center agents are turning to these free online translation services.

All of the nuances and significance going into developing neural databases and machine learning technologies have highlighted some of the complexities woven into the languages we use to communicate. Namely, how easy it is for messages to be lost without the proper context, style, or depth of knowledge to recognize tone and formalities behind even simple phrases. Is it shorthand? Is there a regional dialect? Are there synonyms at play? The variances in English alone continue to elude algorithms. Machine learning has advanced so much in a short amount of time, but its shortcomings outnumber the struggles humans face with language themselves.

In a pinch, these services might help identify the customer’s general needs and a high-altitude overview of why the conversation is taking place. Relying on a free service openly available from another organization is not a sustainable solution. It poses a significant risk to the integrity of your customer service because it requires putting an external organization in control of the brand and customer experience. Free applications inform their own algorithms – not the user’s conversation. They are also free products. Expect that much quality in the product. That which makes us human can only be interpreted by a human.

Fixing an Imperfect Hiring Process

Hiring for contact centers was never easy, but COVID-19 and the ensuing Great Resignation made it so few employers could meet support hiring needs. This was especially true for businesses that were built to get by with little or no consideration of agents’ employee experience.

Here are common workarounds contact center managers use to improve staff retention:

  • Offer extra compensation for excellent customer service: With compensation for customer service representatives nearly $20,000 below the national average annual salary in the United States, it should come as little surprise that performance incentives have become a motivating factor in contact centers. In its 2022 State of CX Report, GetFeedback reported that 44% of all respondents said they were dissatisfied with their compensation. What is more, half of those same respondents said there would be bonuses or other monetary compensation tied to customer experience goals. For contact center agents, this could be sales or even logging a positive customer satisfaction survey.
  • Keep in touch with former, seasonal employees: Scaling contact centers for growth assumes the managers running them have access to human resources to support it. Identifying those talent pools is a never-ending job with endless possibilities. However, for the sake of saving themselves time and resources, managers are wise to keep in touch with seasonal employees and former colleagues in the event they would ever consider coming back. Having those experienced hands available saves organizations from having to train new employees. These incumbents can be dispatched immediately to face customer needs and even start to mentor the agents around them.
  • Establish inter-departmental channels for collaboration: Going back to the GetFeedback report on CX in 2022, customer experience professionals said they are 27% more likely to have a high return on investment if their department is able to collaborate with other areas of the organization. Not only do these outlets provide agents deeper appreciation for the brand they represent, but it gives them an excuse to interact with their colleagues and establish camaraderie.



Try as we may, agents relying entirely on machine translation do not have the ability to detect the emotion, dialect, and imperfections baked into the thousands of languages in use on planet Earth. 

In reality, there is no such thing as a perfect customer experience. As CX professionals, it comes as no surprise that journeys allowing users to wander off of the path will produce some confusion over how they got to their current location and how to get back on track. When that happens (and it will), it would be naïve to expect those hang-ups will be uniform. 

Now consider the complexities of having a customer base with language needs outside of the brand’s primary support. According to the International Customer Management Institute, 79 percent of contact centers have customers with native languages beyond the brand’s primary language. At least 60 percent of customers expect service in their native language when contacting a brand. 

Machine translation services may not win awards for accurately deciphering a customer’s emotion through written conversation, but they are part of the formula we use to solve the language-scalability problem for enterprise businesses around the world. 40 percent of the same business managers who told the Institute about their contact center staffing troubles and increasing demand from customers for support in their native language also said real-time translation quality was a barrier to providing multilingual support. 

Few organizations have access to the same resources as the United Nations to deploy a knowledge base that can turn dialogue into a primary language that is understood by everyone in the room and that’s OK. It turns out the solution is not so binary — it’s a hybrid.

Discover how managers are finding new ways to combine human and machine translations in a way that provides a better customer experience, higher employee retention rates, and increased inter-departmental collaboration with ChatLingual’s multilingual contact center platform.