AI-powered contact centers could define the next wave of globalization

Providing global customer service is a necessity for large enterprises. But what if your contact center doesn't speak your customer’s language?

Vasco Pedro

What if your contact-center employees don’t speak your customer’s language?

Photo: Unbable

Large enterprises need to provide customer service around the world. But what if your contact-center employees don’t speak your customer’s language?

“Most people in the world don't speak English, 25% of the world, roughly,” said Vasco Pedro, co-founder and CEO of language platform Unbabel. “So how do I sell, market and support customers where my customers don't actually speak my language?”

Language barriers aren’t new: Unbabel draws its name from the biblical story in which God splits the world’s common speech into multiple languages, after all. But in an age of increasing globalization, more businesses are being forced to reckon with the challenges of communicating across cultures, especially companies that sell software as a service.

It’s not merely a cultural problem though: It’s an economic one. “If you're not able to support languages, you're actually limiting yourself,” Pedro said, because you can only serve a small fraction of the global market.

These language barriers are felt most acutely in the contact center. “When I was chatting with [our] team earlier, they were saying that half the conversations in contact centers happen in multiple other languages,” said Priya Vijayarajendran, incoming CTO at AI-based contact-center company Asapp.

Contact centers are already challenging to manage due to heavy infrastructure requirements and large headcounts. Throw in the complexities of multilingual support, and it becomes clear why many companies fail to support multiple languages. For example, “If you want to do 24/7 coverage on a particular language, you'll need at least three people to work shifts,” explained Pedro.

That’s why customers are increasingly interested in software, AI and natural-language processing technology from Unbabel, Asapp, NICE and Google, among others, to bring multilingual support to global contact centers.

Global versus local

Because expanding to multiple languages can be so challenging, some cloud contact vendors like industry giant NICE take the approach of narrowing their focus.

“There is, let’s say, a Pareto of languages,” said Barry Cooper, president of Workforce and Customer Experience at NICE, who pointed out English, Spanish and Chinese as the top three. “Beyond that, there's five or six or seven languages that, if you're covering those languages, you're getting like 70% of the world.”

But even supporting the most common languages is no easy feat. In some cases, it requires an entire on-premises contact center with “big computers and machines and ACDs [automatic call distributors] that manage routing of calls” like the legacy ones that dominated the pre-cloud era, said Cooper.

And it’s not always feasible to skip the on-site presence. Many companies may want to have a single contact center that can service their entire global operations, said Steve Blood, VP analyst at Gartner, but “that's not going to work for their German operation or their French operation or their Australian operation, because those people are going to want local access to local experts to help them out with their local issues.”

This is where the real challenge of a global contact-center strategy becomes apparent. Companies need to balance the complexities of scaling infrastructure with customer demands for localization and native language support.

The solution thus far has been a complicated set of partnerships between companies, the cloud-contact software vendors that provide the technology and business-process outsourcers that handle physical operations.

For cloud-contact vendors, winning business is largely predicated on their ability to expand those partner networks. Genesys is a market leader for that very reason, according to Gartner’s Blood. “Because they're a $1.5 billion company, they have multiple offices in multiple countries, so their ability to recruit and retain partners is pretty strong in many countries around the world,” he said.

NICE — which has partnerships with Atos in Europe and TeleTech, ConvergeOne and RingCentral in North America — is another leader but still isn’t doing as well as Genesys, he said. And he considers companies like Talkdesk and Five9, which Zoom attempted to buy last year for $14.7 billion, less competitive because they “haven’t matured their networks to the level that Genesys has.”

At the other end, engaging an outsourcing company (BPO) with the scale, infrastructure and expertise to manage global headcount with a touch of localization is often the best answer. But the expense can force companies to make tradeoffs: only supporting the languages their teams already speak, or operating call centers in a limited number of countries. Not all BPOs are created the same, either. “Each of them is going to be strong in different areas, and I'm going to engage them for different language pairs,” said Pedro.

And when it comes to multilanguage support at BPOs, “I'm always surprised at how un-global they are,” said Edmund Ovington, who leads customer experience for Unbabel. He wouldn’t name specific companies, but noted there are some BPOs in America that claim to offer multilingual global customer service, but when you talk to them, “98% of their workforce is English-speaking or in America, and they've got a couple of people in Sofia, Bulgaria.”

There are exceptions to this, of course, like Unbabel competitor and partner Teleperformance, the global leader for multilingual support. “But lots of the very big BPOs are hilariously focused on English only,” he said.

The problem is far from new. “Currently, multilingual capabilities are a big unsolved problem for many large contact centers as they typically offer one language,” said Yariv Adan, director of Product Management for Conversational AI at Google Cloud. “If you are a foreign speaker in Germany, you still need to speak German when interacting with most contact centers in [the] region,” he said.

That’s because it can be extremely difficult to find enough German speakers, for example.

While there’s always the option of building a contact center in Germany with native German speakers, it’s an extremely expensive one. Another option would be to use “a secondary location or somewhere like Lisbon or Athens being good examples, which actually have native Germans,” said Ovington. But those native Germans are often university students temporarily studying abroad, and aren’t refined customer-service professionals. The third option would be to use a location “like Cairo, where there's a huge number of secondary speakers,” he said. “But still there's an impact on quality when it's someone who's not native to the language, of course.”

Speaking to robots

These nuances are exactly what make global contact-center strategy challenging, but also present enormous opportunities for software companies. The industry’s high level of M&A activity, intensive infrastructure, headcount requirements and low margins have all the makings of a mature industry ripe for disruption.

At NICE, the company is already employing bots to assist its contact-center agents. “There’s definitely going to be this next level of outsourcing also to bots that go on, but with the ability to escalate to a human, in your language, with your personality, with your context when you need to,” said Cooper.

Google also offers its solution to multilingual support “through auto-translation of virtual agents, allowing companies to create a virtual agent once and deploy it in multiple languages,” said Adan. Asapp is using its “differentiated IP in NLP” to offer more accurate real-time transcription of customer service calls, said Vijayarajendran.

And Unbabel is using AI-powered translation to help an agent reply to a customer in their native language. The effect is that rather than serving one language, “the same three people that do 24/7 coverage can now cover 30 languages,” said Pedro.

Despite advancements in NLP and AI, industry experts say many of these technologies are still a ways off. As a bilingual speaker himself, Blood from Gartner notes how some translations Google comes up with, for instance, aren’t great.

“I still feel they're not refined enough,” he said. “Because bear in mind, achieving translation is one thing. But then understanding the intent across multiple languages, across multiple topics, this starts to become incredibly complex and very difficult.”

But if contact centers can solve the challenges of language, they may define the next wave of globalization: for better or worse.

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