Worldly Wise?
Despite technologies that span the globe, the world's still a pretty wide place.
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I speak two languages--French and Japanese--in addition to my native English. I've lived a total of eight years overseas and have traveled all over the Northern Hemisphere, from Beijing to Bangkok, and from Paris to Prague.

I thought I was eminently qualified to write a piece on international CRM. But I found, as did the companies I interviewed, that some obstacles to doing business globally aren't that easy to overcome. I had to admit that the challenges of foreign travel--like trying to eat neatly with my hands or tackling bureaucratic visa officials--paled in comparison to the inconveniences involved with researching an article that covered many countries, languages and time zones.

Time Zone Hell
"I'm in time zone hell," complained one PR guy who was trying to set up an interview involving me in California, him in Massachusetts and customer representatives in Dublin and Bristol. We ended up talking at 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. respectively. Because of the time difference between California and the rest of the world, my morning interview slots filled up quickly, so I found myself offering to be available earlier and earlier. One morning at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time, I struggled to keep my eyes open while discussing the intricacies of the Japanese market.

Thankfully, one agreeable vendor offered to talk to me at the convenient time of 3:00 p.m. my time. He'd just arrived in Australia and upon reaching his hotel room, called me on his cell phone. "Sorry," he apologized, "I'm a bit tired after a 15-hour flight." I could certainly understand.

Parlez Vous?
On another early morning phone call, I bumped into the language barrier. I had Munich on the line, and I was talking with the German president of a CRM vendor and the British vice president of marketing. They put me on speakerphone. With every question I asked, I had to strain to make out the answer, which was delivered in perfect English, but with a German accent. The British English was also a challenge, as the vice president was sitting a little far from the phone.

If I had that much trouble with British and German accents, I could only imagine the difficulty call center agents have understanding thick accents or languages of which they are not native speakers. In pan-European call centers, agents often juggle several languages. Changing languages in the software is easy, say vendors. All agents have to do is click a button. But what about the switching from one language to another that must occur in the agent's head? That's not quite as automatic.

No Panacea
Although technologies--from translation machines to international cell phones--are lowering barriers to global dealing, I've found it takes some tweaking to get all this to work. As part of learning about international CRM, for example, I wanted to make my browser communicate in Japanese. And, I thought, while I was about it, why not Chinese, too?

After considerable effort, and numerous calls to experts and friends, I managed to change all the titles in my browser into Japanese characters. All well and good. But then, just for kicks, I tried Chinese. To change it back, I discovered I had to read Chinese. And I don't. "Oh no," I thought. "What are the IT folks going to say when I tell them I'm stuck in a language I can't read?"

Luckily, I was saved by the fact that some prescient programmer included a little "L" next to the Chinese equivalent of "language." I clicked. And voilĂ ! Back to good old English.

As I discovered, there is a vast array of software that begins to break down international communication barriers, though none of it is perfect. At this point, global business people, like travelers, must still straddle time zones and work to overcome the considerable physical and linguistic distances that separate us.

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