When two people from one country meet in another country, what is the first thing that they do? No doubt they would discuss a topic of common interest, but first they would drop the foreign language and start conversing in their native tongue. Observe them closely, and you would notice their delight in meeting someone who speaks "their own language."
Our native language remains an important characteristic throughout our lives. This offers a very important message for companies doing business beyond domestic borders—and oftentimes within their own country. Speaking to your customers in their preferred language is key for your business. Though English has become the global corporate language, native language is still critical to establish an instant connection with your target audiences and to drive customer satisfaction.
Taking that a step further, being able to provide solutions to your customers—whether those are SaaS products for B2B customers, mobile apps for consumer audiences, Web sites for both, etc.—in their desired language can best address their preferences and differentiate your organization from others that are not investing in this area. But how can you achieve this? Countries like Finland have more than one national language. China has more than 80 ethnic languages. In the U.S. alone, there are approximately 60 million people speaking a language other than English in their homes.
Adding further complexity, often the standard language used for many technology-based offerings is English. Unless you are building each product in multiple languages from the outset, what can you do to tackle this language disparity? There are several approaches your business can take to address non-English speaking customers' preferences and demonstrate your company's commitment to them. Some options follow.
Businesses have the option to manually translate technology-based offerings into desired languages if they are not too complex. It can be time- and labor-intensive, but is the most cost-effective option for reaching non-English speakers—but only at the outset. Since this is not a scalable solution over time, businesses would need to engage translators every time they want to upgrade a product or add enhancements, and the costs would increase as a result. Unless your business is selectively updating static Web pages or other offerings that will not be upgraded in the future, this may not be the best option.
Localization is the process of modifying internationalized software for a specific region or language by adding locale-specific components and translating text. For products that were not internationalized when developed, it can be complicated and risky to localize them after the fact, since it's like changing the product's DNA. During the localization process, bugs could potentially be introduced, and the architecture and stability of the solutions themselves could be compromised. However, if you have a large staff of developers with the bandwidth to dedicate exclusively to this approach, or if you are trying to reach audiences where the "look and feel" of your offering may need to be modified, e.g., to ensure colors and images are appropriate for certain regions or cultures on a global scale, then localization is an option to evaluate.
Software Language Add-Ons
There are software language add-on solutions available that can be used to translate what a user sees on his computer, tablet, or phone screen—whether that may be a software product, a Web page, or an app, for example. These solutions do not impact the underlying technology architecture, code, or data, regardless of whether something has been internationalized or not. A user can choose the language he wants if it's offered and can then immediately interact with the offering in the chosen language. Implementation of this kind of solution is fairly straightforward, but it requires that a business invest time up-front and that it provide clear feedback to the chosen vendor on translated text and other factors to ensure a smooth process.
What might this look like in actuality? Recently, an Indian bank wanted to be able to deliver its core banking solution in English, as well as Hindi, for its customers. However, Hindi was not a language option for software it had selected. The bank didn't want to take the chance of modifying the solution's code or data given the potential risks involved. It selected a language add-on technology, allowing users to select English or Hindi on their computer screens and see their bank statements and other Web content in their language of choice in real time—and without any impact to the underlying technology in any way. Additionally, all reports, letters, and paper statements were able to be translated and presented in either Hindi or English—or both. This multilingual capability has enabled the bank to reach new customer markets where Hindi is the preferred language, help to ensure accurate and fast transactions, and deliver the type of service it desires to retain those customers.
Your company may have the best software product or the most interactive Web site or the coolest iPhone app, but you risk less than optimal impact—or worse, frustrated customers and lost business—if your customers are unable to understand and use it. By "glocalizing" your offerings, you can provide your target audiences with what they need to not only best support them but also to drive retention and loyalty.
Atul Tulshibagwale is the CEO of enterprise application language management firm LinguaNext. Prior to founding LinguaNext, Tulshibagwale was CEO and cofounder of Trustgenix, an identity management software company which was acquired by HP.