The FT Word – February 2003

The FT Word

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Welcome to the February 2003 issue of the FT Word. Please share it with support colleagues! In this month’s issue:

·         Multilingual support: a six-step plan

·         Supporting third-party products

Multilingual Support

Do your clients speak Japanese? German? French? (Or do they speak English while you speak Chinese?) Then you know what it’s like to have to deliver multi-lingual support. Multi-lingual support is difficult and costly, in great part because it violates one of the key principles of support, “Big is Beautiful”. Here is a practical guide to making it work.

1. Ruthlessly assess the needs for multi-lingual support

To be blunt: just say no — or “iye”, “nein”, or “non”. Delivering quality support in multiple languages is a challenge, so avoid having to do it as much as possible. If you deliver documentation in English only, then you should be able to deliver support in English only. If the support contacts speak English, although it’s not their mother tongue, you should be able to make do with English support.

Focus on your key countries. B2B vendors that operate in Japan pretty much need to provide support in Japanese. Germans often ask for support in German, but their English is usually excellent and more than adequate for providing support. French businesspeople can read English, but frequently don’t speak it well enough to be able to follow a support conversation. And Americans will refuse to do business with a company from which they cannot support in English.

If you are selling to consumers, you can pretty much expect to deliver support in local languages, including Spanish for US-based customers in many markets. In consumer markets, multi-lingual support is part of the cost of doing business.

2. Limit the scope of multilingual support

Even if you must deliver support in a foreign language, you may be able to deliver only a little bit of it. A common strategy is to offer business-day support (excluding holidays) in the local language, but to deliver all after-hours support in English. This makes it much easier to organize the logistics while ensuring that customers get the bulk of the benefit.

Similarly, it’s not unusual for the knowledge base to be available in English only, and it works quite well since most non-native speakers can read much, much better than they can speak or write.

3. Limit the number of support centers

So you need to deliver support in Japanese? Do you need to open a support center in Japan? Probably yes, because it’s virtually impossible to find Japanese speakers anywhere else. But if you need to deliver support in German, you should be able to do it from your existing European support center, even if it’s not located in Germany. And you may well be able to hire native German speakers. This is true for most Western European languages.

The benefit of having few support centers is that management, training, and communication costs are much less. Don’t build a new center just because you have a new language to support. With clever locations, you should be able to house many different languages in the same place. In Europe, the UK, Ireland, and the Netherlands are all good candidates for multilingual centers. In Asia, places like Singapore and Malaysia can cover both Chinese and English support needs. Think of multilingual needs when you decide on support locations.

4. Use multilingual staffers whenever possible

If one support center with many languages is good, then one support rep with many languages is even better! Multilingual speakers are much more versatile and will allow you great scheduling flexibility. Large multicultural cities such as the ones cited above should allow you to hire people who can speak more than one language fluently (make sure you test them, however, we are talking about providing support, not holding a laid-back vacation conversation).

Interestingly, it’s fairly easy to find multilingual speakers among “techies”, since techies with a native language other than English are likely to have learned English somewhere along the way.

5. Don’t expect outsourcing miracles

Here’s a common outsourcing dream: since I can’t easily find a French speaker, I’ll just outsource to a French outsourcer. Good idea? Not necessarily. First, using an outsourcer automatically guarantees that you have yet another support center to worry about. Second, you now have to manage the vendor, including knowledge sharing. Outsourcing for multilingual support works well for low-complexity support. For high-complexity support, it’s often easier to look harder for multilingual speakers.

6. Cultivate close ties with local sales forces

It’s easiest for local sales forces to sell customers on a support center in the area that dispenses culturally and linguistically appropriate support. If you cannot afford to deliver support in the local language, or even if you provide local-language support, but in a remote location, make sure that you keep in close touch with the local sales force. A good relationship will allow you to delay providing local-language support, and will ensure that you can get the local assistance you will need once in a while with big customer problems.

Multi-lingual support is a big adventure. Proceed with caution!

Supporting Third-Party Products

It seems that many creative product marketing managers have figured out that it can be much easier and faster to sell a product already developed elsewhere rather than to create it internally. Guess who supports third-party products: you! So how do you make third-party product support work?

1. Insert yourself into the product planning effort

Few product marketing managers have experience running support operations, so they usually underestimate and misunderstand the challenges of supporting third-party products. By participating in product planning you can at least ask the right questions, and even demonstrate that some choices are unsound because of the support issues they bring with them. By the time the product appears on the price list, it’s too late!

2. Define handoffs

Who will train the support team on new products? Who will handle escalations, repairs, fixes when something goes wrong? Even if you are taking the support requests, as is most often the case if you are selling the products, you must be clear about where your responsibilities start and end.

If the third-party vendor is large, your life should be pretty easy since it will undoubtedly have well-established processes. On the other hand, many of my clients find themselves working with small third-party vendors that do not have any infrastructure for sharing knowledge or handling escalations. So they have to educate the vendor on what to do, a time-consuming task, and one that’s more likely to succeed if started early on during the negotiations.

Think long-term. For instance, it’s great to have a training program at the beginning of the relationship, but what will happen in six months or a year when new products come out, or existing support staffers leave?

3. Use formal SLAs

Perhaps you’ve been trying to implement service-level agreements (SLAs) within your own organization, and encountered much resistance. The good news is that working with third parties naturally lends itself to formal SLAs for response time and such. You may even be able to nudge the internal organizations to adopt SLAs once they are working with the third-party vendors.

4. Put some extra care into the first weeks and months

A wonderful way to get started is to organize staff exchanges. Beyond making the knowledge sharing easier, it creates personal bonds that simply cannot be paralleled by any amount of tools or processes.

5. Automate as much as you can

Whenever possible, tie the third-party vendor to your tools and your processes. Escalations that can happen right through the support-tracking tools will be much easier to work on and much easier to monitor than escalations that require going through multiple systems (and therefore are not tracked properly). The situation is the same for bug reporting. Clearly you don’t want to pour a lot of money into low-volume products, but try to integrate as much as possible.

6. Keep monitoring the relationship

Assign an owner to each vendor and implement a regular monitoring program tailored to match the importance of the relationship.

As the product lifecycle winds down, you may find that the support owner is the owner for the entire company, the attention of the product marketing manager having wandered off to a newer and juicier project. It’s often difficult to get marketing attention to issues such as sunsetting older products so the support owner may end up having to make such decisions.

Third-party support is a growing trend. By accepting that fact and starting to work on the relationships during the planning stage you should be able to create much more harmonious relationships (and educate product marketing managers about the realities of support at the same time).

Successful Outsourcing – an FT Works booklet

The latest FT Works booklet is Successful Outsourcing, everything you need to make a successful outsourcing decision and to manage the relationship once the decision is made. It includes checklists for what to look for during the selection process, when checking references, and to get to a smooth go-live date. 19 pages of solid recommendations for $40. You can find a description and ordering information here.

FT Works in the News

I will be presenting a workshop on “Web Support Strategy and Implementation” at the upcoming SSPA conference in San Diego on April 2nd. I hope to see you there! The workshop description is at

ASP, the Association of Support Professionals, invited me to join their consultants’ Open House, a forum for support professionals to interact with various specialists. You can see more details at

SSPAnews published an article I wrote entitled “Should you upgrade your support tools?”, an audit for support-tracking and knowledge-management tools. You can read it at

My latest book, Just Enough CRM, will be available on 2/24. You can find a description and buy it here.

Curious about something? Send me your suggestions for topics and your name will appear in future newsletters. I’m thinking of doing a compilation of “tips and tricks about support metrics” in the coming months so if you have favorites, horror stories, or questions about metrics, please don’t be shy.

Françoise Tourniaire
FT Works
650 559 9826

About FT Works

FT Works helps technology companies create and improve their support operations. Areas of expertise include designing support offerings, creating hiring plans to recruit the right people quickly, training support staff to deliver effective support, defining and implementing support processes, selecting support tools, designing effective metrics, and support center audits. See more details at

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