Retailers, why not set up multilingual call centers?

With a video connection to any store in the chain, foreign-born customers could deal with sales associates who speak their language

People working in a call center 131581032
Credit: Thinkstock

Here's an idea for retailers: Stop losing sales because your associates don't speak the language of some of your potential customers. When a customer shows up who only speaks Spanish — or Russian, or Mandarin, or Portuguese, or Hmong — you could accommodate them without hiring sales associates in every store who speak Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Portuguese and Hmong.

How, you ask? Through the magic of call-center centralization.

I'll explain, but first let me tell you what made me think of this.

A deaf customer recently used the drive-through at a Starbucks in St. Augustine, Fla. After some frustrating moments trying to place her order, she was pleased to see a video screen pop up on the menu board showing an employee communicating with her in American Sign Language. So pleased, in fact, that she went back the next day to record the experience and post it on Facebook.

That signing employee happened to work in that particular Starbucks (St. Augustine, in fact, has a substantial deaf community), but there's no reason for retailers to be constrained in that way. A call center devoted to multilingual translation would be easy to set up to serve needs as they arise across the nation.

This idea is hardly new, although it's done very rarely. I wrote about this being done at a California McDonald's franchise more than 10 years ago. The CFO-friendly metrics are simple. If your store has a need but it's far too infrequent a need to justify even a part-timer, aggregate that need and use a centralized national team.

Think of the potential. A small store could support any customer speaking any one of dozens of languages. 

The advantages of this idea can be enjoyed by any retail outlet, be it urban, rural or suburban. No matter how small and homogeneous the community is, visitors speaking foreign languages are going to show up. No matter how heterogeneous the neighborhood in New York or Los Angeles, there will always be a need for languages not spoken by the employees that are working during a particular shift.

Video-based translation is retail tech that can really make a difference.

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