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Is localization "solved"? If so, what does that mean for internationally-active businesses? Are they then "in the market"? Arle Lommel argues that localization is only part of the picture and that post-localization issues will become increasingly important for companies doing business around the world.

Arle Lommel As a preface to my predictions for the new year I want to make a somewhat provocative and deliberately over-simplifying statement. This is that the localization problem is solved. This is not to suggest that there are no problems with localization or that we won't see considerable improvement in localization technologies and processes over the coming years, nor do I mean to belittle the problems that companies face in localizing their products.

I mean this rather in the same way one could say that automobile transportation was solved in 1930: autos had four wheels, headlights, steering wheels, motors, transmissions, etc. While a 1930 Ford looks and responds very differently from the latest Ferrari, you can look at the old auto and see how almost every part has evolved into something in the newer vehicle. Yes, the newer vehicles are more reliable (or so we hope) and are generally easier to operate (changing tires is no longer a daily experience), but they are still cars.

At least as far as mainstream autos go, the automotive world has been working with the same basic concept since the early 1900s. Enhancements that strayed too far, like floating boat-cars, have never really caught on because the "enhancements" hindered autos getting their basic work done - transporting people from point A to point B on roads. Similarly I expect that in four or five years we will still be dealing with the same bag of GILT tools - they may work better, but they'll be the same sorts of tools. I don't see a paradigm shift in the way we do localization.

One area where we do need significant improvement is usability. Take Globalization Management Systems (GMSs) for example - a common complaint is that GMSs are still too difficult and complex for most users. The GMS providers counter that their tools have to be complex. This may well be true, but what good is your car if it can ford streams and climb mountains but requires the simultaneous operation of eight different levers and pedals to do this? Simplification of systems is essential for GMS and other new GILT tools to succeed - it is also one are where comparable products can differentiate themselves.

In any event, if you accept the premise that localization is solved (or are willing to suspend disbelief for a while), this leads to my primary prediction for 2003 - that the needs of customers in international markets will become more and more of an issue, and one that we haven't solved yet.

As an example, let's assume that I am a Chinese customer who has just bought a U.S.-made software package (localized into Chinese) for $100. Right now if I run into technical difficulties, what likelihood do I have of receiving intelligent tech support to get it working? In most cases, not much. Let's look at the process I might go through in trying to get help if I live in Western China and my new software refuses to function properly:

  • I go to the website of the company that made the software. If I am lucky I'll find a Chinese version of the site (but most likely I won't). If I know English I might find what I need, but if I don't speak English, I'm in trouble. Let's be charitable and assume that the company has a Chinese site and that they have a internationalized/localized search engine that can deal with Chinese (we're being very generous here). I enter my search term and away I go, only to find that the service bulletins on my software are in English only. This is going nowhere fast.
  • I look through the manual and find that there is a toll-free number for a call center in California I can call to talk to a live human being. Oops. I live in Western China, so that toll-free number does me no good. So I call the regular long-distance number in California and get English gibberish (for all I understand) and eventually the person on the other end hangs up. I try three more times and finally get an employee who realizes what I am speaking and gets someone on the line who speaks Mandarin Chinese. (Again, I am being generous here and assuming that the call center has a Chinese speaker.)
  • With the help of the Chinese speaker I determine that I need to register my program on the web before they can help me since tech support is only offered to registered customers. The Chinese customer service agent gives me a number to reach him at when I call back.
  • I go back to the web only to find that the registration form isn't localized and wants a U.S. address and zip code. I am unable to register.
  • I call the customer service agent I spoke with earlier, but I forget the time difference and find no one is at the call center, so I have to wait until the next day to call.
  • I call again and spend half an hour on the phone with the customer service agent as he fights with the registration system to get me registered and finally ends up using his own address to fool the system into accepting my registration.
  • Now that I am registered he can help me and within five minutes we discover that I need to change one setting in the program and it will work just fine.

At this point I have spent the better part of two days and a small fortune in phone charges to find out what an English speaker could have found in five minutes on the web. I have lost time and money, and so has the company that sold me the software (whatever money the company got on the sale has been eaten up in customer support costs).

This is what has not been solved, and what as an industry we are nowhere near solving. Individual companies may have solved support issues for specific markets, but as a whole we are looking at a situation where we need an auto but we are just discovering how to build a horse-drawn cart. These issues are going to become more and more important as companies realize that they have to provide a level of service in each market they do business in that approaches the level of support and service found in their home market.

These issues are especially difficult for smaller companies and smaller markets. It doesn't make sense to localize everything for each market or to have a call center in Western China to handle support issues (unless you see Western China as a major market), but that doesn't eliminate the need for support in these markets. So either the GILT industry needs to figure out how to deal with this issue or we need to admit that a Chinese customer can't have the level of service a U.S. customer will have. (In that case should we simply admit that the Chinese customer is getting less for his money and charge less for the Chinese version of the software?)

This is one area that we are far from solving. We don't even have the outline of the solution yet.

As a small contribution towards a solution, I would like to propose an idea that my colleague Alex Lam came up with. It would help companies deal with at least e-mail inquiries and requests from markets where it makes no sense to hire full- or even part-time support staff. Lam's idea was that companies dealing in markets where they cannot justify hiring staff would pay translators a retainer to deal with their support in a given area. Any e-mail that comes in a given language would be dealt with promptly by the translator, who would be given adequate support resources to deal the problem. The translator then would serve as the customer's agent in dealing with the company. In months when no requests are received the translator is paid for his or her availability, but in months when many requests are received the translator is paid more than the retainer to handle them, based on pre-determined rates.

This retainer arrangement would allow companies to be responsive in handling support and sales issues since they would not need to find translators or negotiate payment details on a case by case basis. Companies would have consistent and reliable resources to support smaller markets without having to invest directly in a support architecture for those markets. As markets grow the arrangement could be easily scaled to the point where companies might want to hire full-time staff to handle them. This model would allow companies to support small markets. For as little as a few hundred dollars a month a company could provide a professional and responsive presence in markets that would otherwise be out of reach and that would be a money losers if the company had to handle them directly.

Admittedly translators may not be the best people to handle support issues, but when faced with the choice of a trained tech support specialist with whom they can't speak, and a translator with whom they can, most customers would choose the translator, even if the translator needs to forward questions to someone else or do research. Companies could greatly improve service as well by providing their support translators with working copies of their product in both the source and target locales and providing them with priority access to tech support specialists in the company and product training.

While this proposal does not solve all of the support problems a company will face and leaves out a lot of details, it would provide a way to at least have a foot on the ground and to not discriminate on the basis of language or a region's lack of economic clout. Companies owe it to their customers to at least provide a minimal level of support so that they aren't selling "junk" to them.

How this will be accomplished will be one of the big issues in coming years now that localization itself is "solved". I expect that many brilliant ideas will surface and in four or five years I may be able to write that this too is more or less solved.

Arle Lommel is LISA Publications Manager. A native of Alaska, he currently resides in Indiana. In addition to working for LISA, he is an emeritus member of the Brigham Young University Translation Research Group (TRG), a Provo, Utah-based translation, theory and technology think-tank directed by Dr. Alan Melby, and has edited a number of books on linguistics.


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
15 January 2003, Volume XII, Issue 1.1.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider: www.localization.org, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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