Solutions to the Language Puzzle: Hiring Multilingual Agents [Part 3]

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[Click here to read Part 1]
[Click here to read Part 2]
[Click here to read Part 4]

Your customers are diverse. In the United States, the top 10 foreign languages spoken are: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, German, Korean, French, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian, and Arabic. And supporting customers in all these languages requires a lot of resources.

This is a challenge we feel in the contact center industry. A recent survey from ICMI indicated that 86% of companies have multilingual or limited English proficiency customers, but only 66% are able to support them with any level of multilingual customer care.

In this light, companies may be missing opportunities to drive brand loyalty and improve the customer experience with non-primary language speakers. The question this four-part blog series is answering is why, therefore, isn’t multilingual care more widespread among contact centers?

It comes back to the options contact centers have. In part one, we looked at back-office resources. In part two, we detailed over-the-phone (OPI) interpretation services.

Moving up the multilingual sophistication curve, this post details the opportunities and challenges of hiring multilingual and bilingual agents.

On the surface, the concept is simple: analyze your contact volume by language and, when the scale is appropriate, hire the necessary language skills. Digging deeper, it’s not that easy.

Hiring the right multilingual agents is hard

Contact centers aren’t the only companies looking for language skills. So immediately, you’re competing for talent. And depending where your company is based, the talent may not exist.

For instance, less than one half of one percent of the population in Manila speaks Spanish, so it’s very difficult to support Spanish from this popular offshore location.

At Call Center Week Winter, I spoke to the director of customer service of a $500 million online retailer headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina. She had a large Chinese-speaking customer base and came to GeoFluent because she couldn’t find the skills in Greensboro.

Language talent costs more

If you are able to find it, language talent costs more. According to, salaries for multilingual agents are 5-20% higher versus others. The cost could well be worth it when you measure the impact on language-specific CX, CSAT, and NPS.

Retention is a challenge

Similar to non-multilingual agents, retention is challenging. According to a 2013 Deloitte survey, attrition in contact centers can exceed 50% a year. If your organization is on the high-end of this scale, you can get caught in a vicious cycle, where the cost of finding and hiring language talent isn’t effective.

It’s not just about language

The goal for contact centers is quality service and customer satisfaction. Language skills by default don’t mean multilingual or bilingual agents contribute to that mission.

Using the example of the online retailer in Greensboro, if she found Chinese-speaking agents, but they weren’t (or couldn’t) be trained to be customer service-focused, the hires weren’t successful. And digital channels like email and chat mean that speaking Chinese isn’t enough. Agents also need to write effectively and professionally. Because verbal and written communication are different skills, this doubles the challenge of hiring multilingual agents.

Where does this leave contact centers?

Pros of hiring multilingual agents

  • It provides professional language support for contact centers

Cons of hiring multilingual agents

  • They can be difficult to find
  • They cost more than monolingual agents
  • They are difficult to retain
  • Smaller agent pools can create gaps or significantly higher service levels during peak volume
  • Hard to staff all languages 24×7
  • Language skills don’t by default include a customer service focus—or the ability to communicate effectively across voice and digital channels
  • Multilingual agents have varied degrees of proficiency in speaking 2nd and or 3rd languages
  • All training materials and internal knowledge bases need to be available across languages

With this blog post, we’ve now covered three of the most-commonly used multilingual strategies for contact centers. Next up, we’ll tackle establishing in-country contact centers.

For more information, read the new whitepaper, Real-Time Omni-Lingual Care Comes of Age for Contact Centers.

About the author

rsz_headshot_tom_tsekiTom Tseki is a contact center industry veteran. His experience and expertise include helping organizations implement and leverage omni-channel customer care strategies to improve CX, increase revenue, and gain contact center efficiencies.

He has a deep background in contact center technology as it relates to customer communication, analytics, and workforce optimization. Tom works closely with contact center and BPO leaders on strategies to improve care by reducing customer effort—leading to increased CSAT and NPS.

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