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Give Localization Its Due
Mastering this important concept is trickier than you think.
For the rest of the January 2015 issue of CRM magazine please click here

Whenever your favorite app gets updated, the vendor is always quick to point out new or expanded capabilities. Integration with some other vendor? Front page news! Updated user interface? Awesome! Look at any press release and you'll see there's a hierarchy of snazziness that most companies follow.

Somewhere down below the fold, past all the hot topics, is the space reserved for language support, localization, and additional currencies. These are the also-rans of apps marketing, the app equivalent of the bit players that pop up when you hit "see full cast and crew" on IMDB. This is a disservice, because localization is an important and noticeable part of the customer experience.

The ur-example of bad localization is one most readers will remember: stereo instructions. Growing up, anytime I bought an electronic device or other complex item from a foreign land (such as a stereo receiver made in China), I was taking my sanity in my hands. The instructions for building or operating the thing were usually direct and literal translations from the native language into English. This is almost never a good approach, and the results ranged from confusing to hilarious to life-threatening. Most businesses are now willing to spend a little extra on good translations, but cheaper goods still carry warnings such as "Note: Prevent cooks meals or is injured, only battery assigns carry on the charge."

But there's much more to localization than mistranslated manuals. Any sort of accounting or e-commerce system requires extensive changes depending on where in the world it's likely to be used. Currency, tax rules, and various laws must be considered, or the company could find itself in deep legal trouble.

Even software itself isn't immune to localization worries. Code isn't quite as universal and standardized as we might think, especially when it comes to proprietary stuff like operating systems and boxed software.

Maybe you think product localization doesn't really apply to CRM, but you'd be wrong. On the technology side, CRM faces the same issues as any other software. In addition, different countries have a variety of laws about what sort of customer data you can gather—Germany is notably strict about privacy, for example—so that will affect how your marketing apps behave. Any regional differences in products need to be reflected in knowledge bases too. Even when I guest-blog or write copy for international businesses, I have to be sure my turns of phrase aren't any more insulting than usual, or in unintended places. Let's just say that humor doesn't always travel well.

But perhaps the most pervasive localization problem is the one that's hardest to resolve: language gaps in the contact center. It's really disorienting when all your interactions with a vendor have been with people from the local office, but then you call technical support and get somebody who's clearly in Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro and swears his name is Steve. His technical skill might be excellent, and his English might be textbook-perfect, but his accent might be so thick it doesn't matter, or you misunderstand one another's idioms, and frustration takes over.

I'm not saying offshore contact centers are bad, by the way. Our always-on consumer society demands instant access to help, and going international offers too many benefits to ignore. The professionalism of offshore support personnel tends to be impeccable, and I've gotten some great phone assistance in my time. Still, some of us don't have an ear for dialect, or are childish enough to laugh at others' differences. I am not one of the former, and try really hard not to be the latter. But that can't be said for everyone.

We should be thankful for the people who translate, rewrite, and otherwise make our technology work right in as many places as possible. We can buy things online from anywhere, without having to hire middle men. We can install software or use cloud services without having to engineer them at home. Go read some poorly done home theater manuals and remember how much worse it could be.


Marshall Lager is staying right here at home with Third Idea Consulting, where the official language is technosnark. Request clarification at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.


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