This post originally ran in Forbes.
In the twentieth century, futurists predicted a world where humans lived, but computers did all the thinking. Today, in our global economy, we are rediscovering that technology is no substitute for humans. The best solutions harness the perfect blend of humanity and technology.
The key lies in communication. Only humans can truly communicate what they are thinking, seeing, or feeling to other humans. A computer can simulate the concept of fear, but could never compute the difference between the importance of a firm handshake and eye contact in American business, as opposed to the importance of bowing and honor in Japanese business.
Computers have become smaller, more personal, and more prevalent in our lives. But when it comes to the characteristics that matter most — namely emotions, local customs and terminology — computer solutions overlook the most important fact in a global economy: humans still matter.
With that in mind, here are three things your company can do right now to make sure you stop missing the billions of people who do not speak English and the billions more who range from low to very low English proficiency (source: Education First).
1. Know Your Market
English is not the common link between the fastest growing markets. Of the 15 fastest growing global markets reported by the The Economist, eight are countries where English is not the native language. If you are trying to reach a consumer in an emerging market, there is a 57 percent chance that your potential customer, supplier or business partner will speak little to no English. Put simply, if you plan to take your business international, the likelihood of you running into language barriers is high and potentially debilitating.
There are two ways to reach these people without coming across as culturally insensitive. You could invest in boots on the ground — acquiring office space, hiring local employees, and sending over a training team — or you could expand your current team’s capabilities at minimal to no cost by leveraging crowdsourced platforms to improve your contextual understanding of new markets.
2. Understand Your Customer’s World
If English isn’t the universal language, the inevitable question comes into play: how do you reach these emerging markets and grow your business if you don’t speak the local language?
Common Sense Advisory’s (CSA) report, “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters on Global Websites,” showed that 72 percent of consumers say they would be more likely to buy a product with information in their own language. CSA also states that 56 percent of consumers say that the ability to obtain information in their own language is more important than price.
To take advantage of these trends you need native speakers who know the lay of the land and bring cultural sensitivity to the markets you’re trying to reach. Remember, language is more than simply words on a page; it’s contextual understanding as well. Utilizing cloud-based companies like Elance.com and oDesk.com to find local people to try your product will allow you to test new concepts on new audiences at minimal cost.
3. Win From the Inside-Out
In a recent collaborative study, “Reducing the Impact of Language Barriers,” Forbes and Rosetta Stone reported that 84 percent of executives at international firms believe that employees are more efficient when spoken to in their native language. This finding, coupled with what we already know about consumers, makes for a strong case to localize your customer feedback loop.
For example, we recently partnered with Salesforce’s Desk.com to internationalize their customer service. Desk.com can now allow its clients to answer customer questions in any language without having to worry about relying on their bi-lingual colleagues (if they exists) to address customer concerns. Companies that allow employees to couple their common cultural understandings and expressions with their native language will lead stronger cultures, better customer retention, and greater business success.
Building a business culture that embraces the core components of human communication allows for companies to focus their energies on what executives want: higher levels of efficiency and engagement with today’s global economy.
CEO and co-founder of VerbalizeIt