Business Booms As AT&T Accents Foreign Languages

Capable of translating 140 languages, 24 hours a day, AT&T Language Line Services, Monterey, CA, has swelled into the world’s largest provider of over-the-phone interpretation.

Clients connect with the service through an 800 number and wait an average of 45 seconds to be connected to an appropriate interpreter. A 98.5 percent success rate in fulfilling interpretation requests, and the long list of languages spoken have contributed to a 5,000 percent growth rate over the past seven years, said Maria Dias, Language Line’s marketing manager. The company services hundreds of thousands of calls monthly from 10,000 clients.

The service allows clients a means to accommodate a diverse customer base and to gain a competitive advantage in customer service among foreign language-speaking customers.

“If I’m speaking Swahili, it’s not appropriate to say to me ‘You are not speaking English in an English speaking country.’ If I deposit my money at Citibank and do my banking there, I expect the same level of service as those who speak English,” said Dan Ratliff, president of Ratliff Consulting, Rockdale, TX, who first used the service while working as a call-center project manager for Citibank four years ago.

The competitive edge provided by fast, accurate interpretation also assists foreign-born customers who speak English as a second language.

“Often our customers speak English, but they would prefer to do business in their native tongue,” said Nadia Younes, director of diversity initiatives for the Colorado division of Minneapolis-based Norwest Banks. “This is more about making our customers more comfortable. It’s more of a loyalty factor that allows us to develop a better relationship with our customers.”

Clients are charged from $2.20 to $4.50 per minute depending on language and time of day. Costs are subject to volume discounts, Dias said.

Companies call an 800 number to connect to AT&T Language Line’s main call center in Monterey, where operators connect clients to interpreters who work from home offices throughout the U.S. and Canada. Operators at the main call center also help clients determine what language is being spoken.

“Our staff is trained to do basic language recognition, and also to pick up on the demographics of where the call is coming from, to determine the language,” Dias said. “If that doesn’t work, the interpreters can make a final determination.”

Ratliff introduced the AT&T Language Line to Citibank after the company consolidated its retail banking call center operations in San Antonio, TX. The company’s previous system of regional call centers had some staff interpreters in regions heavily populated by non-English speaking minorities. After assessing the difficulties of finding and maintaining interpreters fluent in a variety of languages from one central location, Ratliff decided to outsource interpretation work.

Now, as a consultant, he tells clients with foreign-language options on their voice response systems that interpreters are essential.

“If you have an interactive voice response system that is speaking to foreign-language speaking clients in their native tongue, but when they press zero with a question the language is not available, you have a big problem,” he said. “You’ve set their expectations. If you are going to open the door you must be consistent across the board.”

At Norwest Banks, the service is so successful in its call centers that the company is trying to expand its usage to other areas.

“It actually works so well that we are trying to train and develop more employees to use it better,” said Younes.

The company had handled some interpretation internally but found that the service allows more accurate communication with customers from a wider range of backgrounds.

“It’s easy for us to hire a Spanish interpreter to communicate with people who speak a variety of different Spanish languages. Asian languages and dialects vary so much that it’s not as easy,” Younes said. “I feel a lot more comfortable with trained professional interpreters. When you are talking with people about their money, clarity and making sure you are on the same page is so important.”

Dias said that insurance companies, airlines, telecommunications companies, doctors, hospitals and police 911 centers also use the service. Clients range in size from one- and two-person shops to multinational businesses with numerous sites.

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