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Mel Ott on the mountains skiing

Language services and skiing

What could language services have in common with skiing? Quite a lot, in fact. In my own mind, at least, the two realms share a number of similarities. As a ski instructor and a language services expert, I juggle both worlds. As a result, I’ve picked up some important lessons from my experience on the slopes that I believe can relate to the language services business.

Mel Ott teaches people how to ski. He also manages translation and interpretation vendors for U.S. Translation Company

It’s all about personalization

Which leads me to the kernel of my topic: the importance of personalizing the experience for the particular client. The client-facing language services point person should realize that one client will respond better to one approach, while a different client warrants a very different touch. As a ski instructor, I find the immediacy of my interaction with my student provides a constant reminder of this. A mechanical, mentally-focused skier may be looking for answers in her head when she might be better off thinking with her feet, so to speak. In such a case, I would look for ways to integrate experiential learning into her analytic approach to skiing. Similarly, a timid skier may require a specific combination of carrot and stick in order for him to take a few risks.

In the language services business, our clients are usually in another building, often in another city or even on another continent. We interact via phone, email, and client portals. The immediacy of the interaction — cold air, flailing bodies, waxed skis on powder — that I experience with my students is absent. Which is why it is easy to forget that a personal, customized approach is every bit as important.

A comparison of language services by company size

At this point, I’ll take a brief tangent from the ski / LSP analogy and discuss the effect of company size on the quality of language services.

No straightforward relationship exists between the size of an LSP and the excellence of its customer service; it’s not as though larger LSPs categorically deliver a superior experience than their smaller competitors. Or vice versa. However — and I’ve worked in enough LSPs of various sizes to have this perspective — certain correlations do stand out.

Firstly, larger language services firms tend to have efficient, streamlined operations. This not only improves margins; it can also result in a smoother process for the client. However, this smoothness usually comes at a cost. As a language services provider grows, certain changes inevitably follow. Red tape, for instance: larger and more numerous corporate structures push employees to limit competency to a particular specialty. For large international language services providers, qualified specialized talent becomes a scarce commodity; the company often responds by outsourcing to lower-cost countries. This outsourcing can exacerbate the feeling of compartmentalization and bureaucracy in the organization. All in all, this over-compartmentalization can prove deadly to the personal touch that a smaller company can provide.

Smaller translation and interpretation firms tend to have the opposite dynamic. Their processes may not be as efficient, but each person is required to fill a variety of roles. As a result, they exhibit a more well-rounded knowledge profile to the client. Additionally, they have the personal touch in spades. Obviously, the ultimate LSP would have extremely efficient processes combined with well-rounded personnel and personalized customer service. At U.S. Translation Company, we try to be just such a language services provider. We seek to combine world-class customer service with proven workflows for a personalized, effective customer experience.

Match your communication style to that of your customer

So, one skier prefers a logical teaching style replete with extensive explanation, while another responds to a more empathetic or kinetic experience. Correspondingly, each client responds differently to different modes and types of communication. An engineer — and this sounds stereotypical, but I have, in fact, experienced a client like this — may appreciate a data-filled email, complete with spreadsheets and perfectly-formed charts. A corporate communications director may enjoy a banter-filled phone call. And so forth. When a language services project manager or other representative learns to adapt to the style of the client, their communication will become dramatically more effective. Potentially, this can translate into more sales, repeat business, referrals, etc. Additionally, both interlocutors will find more satisfaction and personal reward in the process.

Regardless of LSP size or maturation level

Every size of language services provider can benefit from an adaptable communication style. A small LSP with outstanding customer service can attract and retain clients even better by learning how to adapt to their personality. A large LSP with efficient processes can become more personable by training employees to match their own approach to the preferences of the customer. Because, in the end, everyone loves to hear what they want to hear, in a tone and cadence and delivery that seems native to their own personality. This is the same for skiers, localization managers, and everyone else.

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