How Many Languages Should Your Service Desk Support?

My native language is English, and this makes it very easy for me to access many different sources of information. I sometimes forget that I am in a very privileged position and that most other people are forced to operate in a foreign language a lot of the time. This was brought home to me recently when I was helping a customer define an operating model for their service desk, and we had a very long discussion on which languages the new service desk would need to support.

For a small organization, with all their staff in one country, this issue is easy to manage. Your service desk just needs to speak the local language, or the two or three local languages if you live somewhere with multiple native languages. For larger organizations that have staff in many countries it can become a problem. Some high-tech companies insist that all their staff speak English for intra-company communication, and in this case it may be acceptable to have a service desk that speaks English only. Other organizations have a local service desk in each location where they have staff, and this also makes the language issue easy to solve, as they can operate in local languages, just like a small organization.

Many organizations find that running a local service desk in every location is expensive and inefficient. They decide to consolidate service desks, to gain economies of scale and improved knowledge sharing. Like the customer I was helping recently, they then have a difficult decision about which languages to support.

Here are some of the thoughts and suggestions that came up during our discussion:

  • We can’t insist that everybody speaks English, because we have many staff who would be unable to get help
  • It would be extremely expensive to provide support in every native language as some offices are very small and might only log one incident or service request every few weeks. For example this company had just ten staff in Finland, and it’s difficult to find Finnish speakers in other countries

Given that we had to support some, but not all, local languages, we needed to agree some policies that would let us decide what languages to support. There were two main factors that we had to take into account, these issues were specific to this customer, but they may help you to think about what you need to consider.

  • Some countries have large numbers of staff. Other countries have only a few staff. This is significant because large numbers of staff generate significant call volumes, so this makes it easier to justify the investment in local language support.
  • Some countries just have sales, marketing and distribution staff. Other countries have manufacturing or other production facilities. This distinction was important for two reasons. Incidents that affect manufacturing or production tend to need more urgent responses, and to have a significant impact on the company more quickly. Also the sales, marketing and distribution staff tended to speak English, whereas manufacturing and production staff were often unable to speak English.

Taking these two factors into account we came up with a list of 11 languages we needed to support in Europe alone. Some of these languages would be easy to support from a centralized service desk, because it’s fairly easy to find service desk staff who speak English, Spanish or German. Others looked as though they might be problematic, because it might not be easy to find native speakers of languages such as Hungarian or Lithuanian outside of the country itself.

This was an interesting exercise in thinking from an outside-in customer-centric point of view. From an IT-centric point of view it would have been easy to say that we would create a centralized service desk and just support the major European languages, but this would have failed to take into account the real needs of the customers. So we designed a solution based on a virtual service desk, where we could use in-country native-speakers for languages where we could not easily get people otherwise. Service desk management will be centralized and all data-entry will be in English, so we can get the economies of scale, knowledge sharing and other benefits of a single service desk, but the virtual model will ensure availability of native speakers in languages where we need them.

There were a few more design decisions needed to complete the language aspects of this model. For example we agreed that we would support self-service call logging in any language for which telephone support is provided, but not for others. We also identified key-users who could log incidents and requests in a supported language on behalf of people in smaller locations who are unable to do so for themselves.

I would love to hear about how other people have solved this problem. How many languages does your service desk support? How did you decide this? How well does it work for your customers? What happens to people who are unable to talk to the service desk?

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Posted by Joe the IT Guy

Joe the IT Guy
Joe the IT Guy

Native New Yorker. Loves everything IT-related (and hugs). Passionate blogger and Twitter addict. Oh...and resident IT Guy at SysAid Technologies (almost forgot the day job!).


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