Hiring Multilingual Staff Members

Dec. 1, 2010
Employing multilingual workers shows non-English-speaking customers that you’ve got their best interests at heart.

Recently, a Hispanic customer drove up to Campbell’s Auto Body for an estimate. The customer didn’t speak any English. And there weren’t any Spanish-speaking employees available.

“The customer was trying to point around the car to show us the damage,” says Allen Massey, co-owner of the Burleson, Texas-based shop. There is a large Hispanic population near the shop due to its proximity to Mexico. “There was obviously some previous damage on the vehicle; we weren’t able to understand what damage the customer wanted an estimate for.”

Massey says it didn’t take long for the customer to get irritated at the hassle the language barrier created. “He got frustrated, drove off and never came back.”

A Bilingual Shop

Diverse populations are on the rise in the United States, says Kelly McDonald, president of McDonald Marketing in Dallas. McDonald is an expert on multicultural diversity who spoke on the subject at NACE 2010. Businesses that don’t adapt are going to start losing market share—and fast, she says.

Campbell’s encountered communication frustrations with Hispanic customers until Massey hired three Spanish-speaking customer service representatives (CSRs) in 2008.

“We would likely continue to lose a lot of those customers if we weren’t able to cater to them in their native language,” says Massey, who notes that people of Hispanic origin comprise 20 percent of the shop’s customer base.

Since hiring Spanish-speaking CSRs, revenue has increased 20 percent each year. He attributes half of that growth to new Hispanic customers.

A Changing Country

It’s no secret the United States is known for its diverse population. But we are going to be truly astonished by how diverse our country is when the census information comes out in February, McDonald says. Our country is becoming more diverse all the time.

In fact, there are currently 50 million Hispanic people in the United States—16 percent of the total population. And most of them prefer to speak their native language, Spanish. “Research shows 53 percent of Hispanics prefer to speak Spanish under any circumstance,” McDonald says. “Even if they know how to speak English, most prefer to speak in Spanish if given the opportunity.”

Javier Avalos, owner of Spectrum Ina Road Auto Collision in Tucson, Ariz., says that’s important for repairers to recognize. “These populations of people are actively searching for businesses that can cater to their language needs,” he says.

Avalos, who employs three Spanish-speaking CSRs, suggests it’s not just about being able to speak their language. It’s about building trust with that set of customers. Having employees in place who allow those customers to speak in their native language, and having a shop environment that makes them feel comfortable will allow you to create a stronger relationship with them, he says.

Avalos knows what he’s talking about: As a Hispanic, he knows the culture well. Most notably, he says, Hispanics feel business is done through relationships and is not just about the financial transaction.

“When [Hispanic customers] come to us, they know we’ll cater to them in their native language,” Avalos says. “That creates a tremendous amount of customer loyalty.” In fact, Avalos says he gets 15 referrals every month from previous customers who tell their friends and family about the services he offers, and from insurers who refer their Hispanic clients.

Avalos says 25 of the shop’s 75 monthly repairs—30 percent—are for Hispanic customers. That accounts for $70,000 of monthly revenue.

Avalos recognizes that tapping into the diverse population in his area is a business growth strategy moving into the future. Your business could do the same. “These populations aren’t going away,” Avalos says. “Why not capitalize on that, and invite them into your business?”

What to Offer

With so many cultures represented in the United States, you might be wondering how your shop can cater to the needs of everybody. Well, you can’t, nor do you need to. Minority groups tend to cluster in certain areas. So before you make a hasty decision and hire a bilingual employee, think strategically about what would benefit you most.

“Most companies are putting an emphasis on Spanish for employee language training,” McDonald says, mainly because that’s the largest minority in the country. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your shop needs a Spanish speaker. Your area may have a high concentration of another ethnicity or culture.

Understanding your local market is critical. McDonald offers a couple easy tips to get a sense of your local demographics:

• Look around your community with fresh eyes. Drive around and take note of the people you see. Look at the signage of other businesses. Money transfer organizations, like Western Union, are good cues because many minorities send money back to their home country, McDonald says. It should tell you something if you start to notice that other businesses have marketing efforts in other languages.

• Look for hard evidence. There are a number of free online tools to find demographic information for your area:


• Check with your local government or chamber of commerce. Some local governments have programs in place to increase minority participation in government affairs. The Georgia Department of Transportation holds special forums for minorities during the planning process of new projects to address questions or concerns, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Knowing which minority groups your local government serves may help you do the same.

“Communities throughout the country are evolving and changing,” McDonald says. “It’s really hard to serve your local market if you’ve lost touch with who your customer base is—or who your customer base could be.”

Operational Readiness

Offering a particular language to your customer base is the first step toward attracting diverse markets, but it’s not the last. Once you have an employee in place, make sure your shop is set up to handle those customers when they start knocking on your door.

The smart companies are realizing it’s not just about offering a particular language, McDonald says, it’s about how your whole business operates:

• Hours of operation. Think about the culture you’re targeting, and when those people tend to be available to come to your business. Many Hispanics, for example, might only be able to come to your shop on Sundays due to their work schedules, McDonald says. Does your shop allow people to drop off or pick up their vehicle when the shop isn’t open?

• Provide translated information. You may need to offer authorization forms or estimates in another language. There are many organizations that can be found online to help with material translations:


• Marketing. Make sure to let your community know you offer multilingual services. Avalos provides information on his website in Spanish, and puts the phrase “Hablamos Espanol” on his marketing and promotional materials.

Multicultural marketing consultants throughout the U.S. can help:


• A second bilingual employee. If you advertise that you offer language services, make sure there is always someone at the shop who can cater to those needs, Avalos says. If you only have one person in place to fill that need, that employee clearly can’t be there every day you’re open for business. “When customers come to your business based on your promise to cater to them, they will get upset if you can’t follow through, lose trust in your facility and take their business elsewhere.”

• Represent the culture you’re targeting. Avalos says it’s important to understand the emotions and values your customer demographic. “People tend to gravitate toward others who are similar to them.”

• Create a welcoming environment. The Hispanic population is driven by friendliness and trust, Avalos says. “Hispanics will gravitate toward the business that makes them feel the most welcome, even if it doesn’t offer the best price.”

Get Your Fair Share

Creating a business environment that caters to diverse populations requires planning and patience to be successful. Doing so can pay off with critical growth for your business.

Avalos says he’s in the minority in his area with offering language services. “I’m gaining a lot of the market share in my area because there aren’t many other shops around here that do this,” he says. “It’s definitely served as a competitive advantage for us.”

The needs of culturally diverse customers are going to be met by someone, say experts and shop owners. Why prevent your shop from getting in on its fair share of the market?

“It’s business survival; if you don’t have a plan in place to handle this customer base, you’re going to have a smaller and smaller piece of the market,” McDonald says. “And that’s not a recipe for success; that’s a recipe for going out of business.”

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