What Does It Mean To Be A Bilingual Call Center?

By Michele M. Ringwood

To be bilingual means being able to use two languages with equal fluency. In our Spanish/English language call center, Pronto Connections, we perform a vital function for our clients. We enhance our clients’ ability to communicate with their customers in their preferred language at a cost that is significantly less than that of traditional translation services. We treat callers with the respect that our clients expect by addressing them in their preferred language. It is simply another option, no more or less attractive than allowing a customer to email, mail, or call in for customer service.

There are many staffing models for bilingual call centers. Is English your center’s primary or secondary language? And is English the primary or secondary language for your clients? Do you talk to callers in their native language and then communicate with your client in English or in a different language?

All of these things affect how you recruit, train, and perform quality assurance on your bilingual staff. Our model is that English is the first language in our center and the first language of most of our clients. Our policy manual and computer skills training are in English. These choices will influence the culture and business practices at your call center.

To recruit, we place ads in both Spanish- and English-language newspapers and websites. We have scripts allowing our own customer service representatives (CSRs) to screen our applicants, but some centers instruct applicants to leave their information on a dual-language voice mail system.

“It’s all in the employment screening,” said Gary Blair, Vice President of Tele-page in Quebec, a French- and English-language service. Blair explained that the interview process at his company averages 45 minutes to an hour. The interview would consist of verbal questioning, reading scripts aloud, reading questions and answering them in writing, and a spelling test. All of these tests are done in both languages!

The company also asks prospective employees questions that they must then translate into the other language on the spot. “After all,” Blair said, “Isn’t this what they have to do?”

At Pronto, we develop our training programs in both English and Spanish. And then we conduct the training sessions and role-plays in both languages. But since English is the language of most of our clients, CSRs communicate with them in English. The CSR picks a script based on which language the caller is speaking. By scripting in both languages Pronto ensures that CSRs don’t have to translate scripts on the fly.

CSRs do, however, translate caller information into English for client documentation. But we don’t ask them to translate scripts on the fly for the same reasons we wouldn’t prompt an English-speaking CSR on a script with, “First Name,” but we prompt the CSR to ask, “May I have your first name please?” To maintain quality we require that scripts be read verbatim.

In Quebec, Blair has his system prompts in the same language as what the CSRs should use to document the call (as requested by the client).

According to the US Census Bureau, here are 37 million Hispanics in the United States. This population segment is increasing more rapidly than any other segment. We are located in Chicago, and being bilingual 24 x 7 x 365 for the past 17 years, weare at the heart of this Hispanic cultural mix.

When I think of the bilingual services we provide, I think of diversity. For each of us that word has a different meaning. For me, it means being exposed to a completely different lifestyle each day in the office.

In December, on one of our busiest days of the year, we had a CSR who called to say she could not come in to work. Her explanation? “My niece is in the hospital. I have to be there with my family.” In the culture of our business, family comes first. I think 15 family members went to the hospital to see this niece. There was no question that this employee should be allowed to go. We are fortunate that this loyalty exists within our corporate culture as well. Our team is dedicated to helping each other and several people volunteered to stay and cover for this employee.

Our company performs a wide range of interpretation and translation services in different languages, as many bilingual call centers do. Frequently a worker will stay on the line for the one person in the business who can’t speak Spanish. The complexity of interpreting another language this without being fluent in it is incomprehensible to me. It is also a huge risk to the caller, your client’s business, and your business. When someone on our team handles a call from a Spanish-speaking caller from a different background, the worker will occasionally ask a co-worker what certain words mean. Many terms differ in meaning to Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Cuban callers.

An important requirement in a bilingual call center is to perform quality monitoring on the actual translation. We have quality assurance personnel who are assigned the specific responsibility of monitoring and scoring calls. They are specifically trained to listen for the special nuances of the translations. These team members coach workers on vocabulary, usage, and translation of Spanish/English calls to ensure that our team is consistent across all our services.

Our goal is to be diverse and communicate with Hispanic callers in their language of preference. Many of our callers speak English but prefer to speak in their native language. You can’t communicate complex ideas if you don’t have the vocabulary to express them. Bilingual call centers bridge this gap for customers and their callers.

Pronto Connections is a bilingual English/Spanish call center in Chicago, Illinois that is owned and operated by Michele M. Ringwood. Pronto specializes in medical dispatch services, employment and credit screening, order processing, and insurance clients.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2003]

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