Se Habla Espanol?: Communicating Effectively with a Trillion-Dollar Market

Crafting the most effective methods for communicating with your Hispanic customers is a growth imperative in every market segment -- from financial services to health care, mortgage services to telecommunications, utilities to travel. According to a 2006 report from Koeppel Direct, individuals of Hispanic origin represent over 23 percent of the purchasing power in the U.S. today -- a purchasing power of approximately $630 billion dollars annually. The growth of this purchasing power is also impressive: By 2010, it's estimated to exceed $1 trillion dollars annually.

Underscoring the importance of effective Spanish-language communication is the fact that, according to an April 2006 HispanIntelligence report, 16.8 percent of all Hispanic households speak only Spanish at home. And this market is relatively underserved -- as an example, according to a March 2007 CUNA article, only 56 percent of Hispanic households have credit cards, compared to 80 percent of all American households.

The Spanish-speaking market clearly represents a large and rapidly growing opportunity. It's critical to explore ideas for maximizing effectiveness of language in automated-communications strategies in order to help develop clear, productive interactions with Hispanic customers.

Beyond the language barrier -- moving past translation
One key factor to keep in mind is that you cannot connect effectively with your Spanish-speaking customers by simply translating English-language communications. In fact, this can lead to less-effective results -- fewer contacts listening to and taking action on your message, due to a generally poorer customer experience.

Many non-English speakers disregard telephone communications when they find them difficult to follow, as often happens with a direct or imperfect translation. This can also happen when the message itself does not take into consideration various language and cultural issues.

To maximize effectiveness and penetration of your Spanish-language communications, consider the following ideas:

  • Messages containing dates can be problematic. Dates in Spanish, specifically, are reversed from common English usage, so you would effectively say, "The 15th day of March," and not "March 15th." While most Spanish speakers will understand the latter, correct usage improves the conversational tone of the communication, improving response. Our tests have demonstrated substantive improvements by incorporating "directive" information about date formats in the communication.
  • When providing an address -- for example, an address to mail a payment -- include an option for the address to be spelled out with additional directions. You'll see more mail sent to the correct address.
  • To encourage your Spanish-language-speaking customers to stay on the line, maintain functional language clarity. Our data indicates that many bilingual customer communications frequently use imperfect translations, with flawed or poorly phrased language. The result: customer confusion, hang-ups, fewer connections with the right party, lower ROI, and lower customer satisfaction. One approach: Craft your communication in the most direct, universally understood manner, using experienced, native-language speakers/translators. This language "speaks" more clearly to your Spanish-speaking demographic and will drive better response rates.
  • Spoken-language clarity -- the sound of the communication -- is absolutely essential if you want your customers to stay on the line. For that 16.8 percent of all Hispanic households that prefer to speak only Spanish at home, this is clearly a critical measure. When communicating with customers who have a Spanish-language preference, consider using actual recordings of native-language speakers' voices to deliver the clearest, most intelligible communications possible. Studies have shown that using this type of clear, prerecorded voice, combined with other best practice elements for scripting, pace, and tone, can result in an increase of as much as 15 percent in the number of Spanish-language customers who will listen to your communication.
  • Spanish speakers have demonstrated they are more likely to wait for options than English speakers. Traditional IVR design frequently places the language option choice at the beginning of the call, as in, "Hello, you've reached Acme Inc. For English, press 1; para espanol, oprima dos." Testing has demonstrated that more English speakers drop off at this point and more Spanish speakers continue. A strategy that directs the first question to the English audience but includes the Spanish language choice immediately after delivers higher success rates for English speakers while the Spanish success stays the same as before. As an example, here's a possible modification for the introductory script: "This is Acme Inc. with important news. If this is John Smith, press 1; if this is not John Smith, press 2, para espanol, oprima tres."
  • Finally, when sending communications to your Spanish-speaking customers, using the correct language "tone" (formal vs. informal, e.g., Usted vs. Tu) is critical in order to achieve the highest response rates. Spanish-language speakers frequently have clear-cut culturally derived distinctions about the appropriate (and inappropriate) use of informal language. If your communication is spoken in the wrong tone -- for example, if it is too "informal" -- many of these customers will not respond.

Above all, you want to ensure that your message is heard and action is taken. Given the size and growth of this market demographic, it is clearly a high-return activity. Effective communications with your Spanish-language-speaking customers will drive significant bottom-line results.

Pat Whelan and Bryan Richardson are executives at Varolii Corp. Whelan is senior vice president of marketing and business development; Richardson is director of media services.

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