Translation Is Just the Tip of the International Customer Experience Iceberg

Nan Russell, head of our Global Centre of Excellence, offers her expert advice to set your international customer experience management (CEM) programme on the right path and ensure your brand doesn’t get ‘lost in translation’.

The potential of going global with a brand is often an attractive prospect. Establishing an international customer base, favourable overseas economic conditions, and competitive cost of goods mean many companies seek to expand into new international markets. Their success depends on how well their brand offering is received by customers in each market, and a robust customer feedback programme is an essential foundational element to shape a brand’s development. But international consumer engagement is beset with pitfalls for the ill-prepared, as several well-publicised cases have highlighted.

We’ve all heard of some infamous international brand faux pas. Vauxhall had to relaunch its Nova model as the Corsa in Spain upon discovering the literal translation of ‘Nova’ in Spanish is ‘it won’t go’. Similarly, when fast food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first restaurant in Beijing, its famous slogan ‘Finger-lickin’ good’ was translated to ‘We’ll eat your fingers off’! In fact, numerous world-famous companies have stumbled when expanding into new markets, risking damage to their brand reputation and sales.

These days, social media quickly amplifies such mistakes around the globe, meaning those responsible for brand reputation have to work even harder to avoid the ‘bad translation’ (and resulting schadenfreude) at every stage of the customer journey. While it is essential for brands to engage customers in the language of the location, achieving this across borders and during every customer interaction poses a number of major challenges.

Don’t just translate the right words; use the right tone

It’s certainly not as easy as simply translating an invitation or survey from one language to another. Brands seeking to communicate their own brand values overseas must also consider local cultural values, rules of conduct, tone, and linguistic nuances such as humour and slang. Does the formal use of honorifics such as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ set the right tone for your brand in Japan, where their use is often mandatory? Or is your brand casual and breezy, and would your customers be more comfortable with a less formal approach?

Measure on the right scales

The cultural impact on market research scoring patterns is one of subtle complexity. On a 5-point scale—with 5 being the best score—does a 4 mean the same thing in Germany and Japan and Mexico? German schools use a rating system in which 1 is the best score and 5 would be near failing. Knowing the correct scoring scales to use in each market is crucial.

Use the right interpretation

Market and cultural differences in relative ‘hard’ or ‘easy’ grading complicate the use of American-designed indices, such as the Net Promoter Score. Customers in some markets would be shocked that their scores of an 8 (on a 10-point scale) are not considered Promoters. There is wide variance in how customers in different markets rate great service; it is important not to assign meanings that they did not intend.

Set the right targets

Once you’re using the right scales, how do you drive improvement? Many businesses want to set a single, global target. For example, every market is expected to achieve 70% on Overall Satisfaction. But the reality is that goal may be simply out of reach for markets that are ‘hard raters’; an Overall Satisfaction score of 65% may be much harder to attain in Germany than a 75% is in Italy.

The meaningful comparison typically is not the score but the improvement ratio. By targeting a level of improvement (for example, all markets are expected to improve six percentage points in the next fiscal year), each market can identify ways to drive their improvement within the relevant context.

Provide the right support

As part of that drive for consistent improvement, it is not enough to report scores; it is essential to support in-market teams with action planning tools. Location managers are often fluent in languages other than those spoken by the corporate executives. Reporting and action planning must be delivered in the language of the people driving the business on the ground.

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