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Don DePalmaCustomer service at many companies is broken. Localization teams and the language service providers who support could increase their strategic value by tackling the online duo of inadequate ethnic marketing and flawed English-language customer service.

Thirty-eight million Americans - roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population - claim Hispanic heritage. The 2000 U.S. census alerted Americans to this emerging majority within its midst. Unlike previous immigrants and their descendants, many Latinos retain their language and culture. Some studies show that up to 70 percent prefer using Spanish for some or all of their daily interactions.

Earlier this year Common Sense Advisory sought to gauge the impact of this group on American business and to size the opportunities it represents by reviewing the websites of the 100 most valuable global brands and the top 50 U.S. online retailers. We sought evidence of how (or whether) these well-known brands and e-tailers addressed the burgeoning American Latino market.

  • We found that dozen global brands offered substantial amounts of content aimed at Spanish-speaking residents of the United States at their corporate websites. Some did a great job in targeting this population. For example, Hertz lets renters complete an entire transaction in Spanish; Yahoo! repurposes investments from its other Spanish-language sites to serve U.S. residents; and Netherlands-based Heineken provides a rich informational site for hispanohablantes in the States.
  • Only four online retailers could make the same claim about content for U.S. Spanish speakers. For example, The Sharper Image and 1-800-Flowers excelled in providing complete experiences in Spanish, including a canasta de compras (shopping cart) for their purchases. Most U.S. online retailers, though, ignored the Latino market.

What we found more interesting than this small showing of ethnically targeted marketing was our follow-up exercise in e-mail response. We pinged each of these companies with four e-mails in Spanish asking about the availability of Spanish content, a compliment about their site, a complaint about their failure to answer a previous e-mail, and a question about where to buy their products or services. As a control, we sent the same inquiries in English. We used a pool of 16 different addresses from a variety of servers to ensure that no company received more than one message from the same individual.

We measured a variety of factors, but focused on just a few in our analysis: whether the company responded or not, the response lag time, the language of the response, the correctness of the answer, and the usefulness of the information they shared.

  • The results from the Spanish exercise were as we predicted - about a third of the companies responded, many in English. The quality of the responses varied greatly, ranging from useful answers composed in excellent Spanish to the dismissive English please. Thank you from a multinational oil company.
  • What really surprised us was the shortfall in answers to our English e-mails. For the 100 global brands, only half responded to one of the questions, fewer to the other three. Among the e-tailers, 73 percent answered two of our inquiries, around 60 percent replied to the remaining two e-mails.

We heard several possible reasons for this low rate of response in our discussions. The knee-jerk reaction of many people was that companies don't read their e-mail because they worry about spam and viruses. However, in both samples, we sent our messages to 70 percent of the companies using the webforms that they posted at their websites. Thus, our messages skirted the e-mail server and went directly into whatever customer database or customer relationship management (CRM) system those firms use for handling website interactions. With all this information in a highly structured format, there is no excuse for not dealing with these inquiries.

Our conclusion was that most companies just don't devote enough time, money, or resources to communicating with prospects and customers via their premier websites. In our recommendations, we suggested a systematic approach to dealing with e-mail or webform inquiries in any language. The technology component of our plan ranges from employing tools like auto-responders in their e-mail servers to utilizing an assortment of less common solutions such as language identifiers, machine translation, categorization engines, workflow, and CRM e-mail response systems.

More important than these powerful software aids, though, are the processes that companies define to answer messages - and the people who do the work. This is exactly where we see a strategic role for today's in-house translation teams and the language service providers that support them. Already language-aware and managing complex workflows to get products and documentation to customers, these global communicators have developed an impressive array of talents little appreciated in large companies.

An immediate task for these specialists is to help their employers and clients meet the e-mail and other customer service needs of the Latino community. They could add to their success by creating culturally nuanced or translated content for Spanish-speaking visitors. As they extend CRM support to meet the needs of the Hispanic community, they should ensure that their process improvements flow over into the flawed, underperforming Anglophone systems. Executed correctly, these efforts promise to win them more strategic recognition than their often hard-to-measure international projects.

Don DePalma is a former member of the Board of Directors of GALA and president of Common Sense Advisory, a research and consulting firm committed to improving the quality of international business and the efficiency of the online and offline operations that support it. He has been writing and speaking about domestic ethnic markets since the late 1990s. You can reach him at or read more about this research at Commonsenseadvisory.


This article was originally published by GALA: The Globalization and Localization Association (

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