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Global Strategies: Watch Your Language

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in Language Connect

You’ve just brought home a brand-new component to plug into your home theater. Once you get past all the plastic wrap, Styrofoam, and cardboard, you find a sleek, high-tech, high-touch design. Now it’s time to install it.

Ten years ago, you would have found an installation guide poorly translated from Japanese or Korean and a confusing display that wasn’t far removed from the original Asian offering. Today, you’ll probably find a glossy, nicely produced, readable owner’s manual and an electronic dashboard that may be usable without a degree in software engineering.

Welcome to the world of global brands. Companies that want to sell their products in other markets invest in “localizing” them to the language and user expectations of their target markets. If they do it right, you won’t even know that the product wasn’t designed for you and you alone. (If they don’t, you’ll be spending time calling customer support or trolling message boards for kindred souls with similar problems.)

Buyers want products they can understand

This need to localize isn’t unique to consumer products; it crosses a wide range of goods and services. At Common Sense Advisory, we have long tracked this product requirement. In 2006, we asked 2,430 consumers in eight non-English-speaking countries about their language and usage preferences for Web sites. The answer was unequivocal: they wanted information, user interfaces, and payment methods that they could read, use, and understand, not English.

More recently, we extended this inquiry to corporate software buyers, both the kind you use on your desktop at work and the heavy-duty enterprise solutions that power supply chains, financial institutions, and corporate operations. This time, we asked 351 buyers in eight non-Anglophone countries about their buying preferences.

We think this survey has broader implications for global sales and should be interesting even if you don’t buy or sell software. Think about the things you do buy or sell. They are marketed either online, in-person, or in the mass media, so the marketers have to attract the prospective buyers’ attention in selling propositions that make sense to them.

Think office equipment, machine tools, anything you might drive or fly, medical devices, and a bunch of other gear. Then consider what makes up these products. Each has an electronic user interface, comes with lots of documentation, and may require post-sales technical support. In many ways, from initial marketing to post-sales support, these products are similar to software.

To measure the localization requirements for business products, we selected a cross-section of countries around the world, aiming for a representative mix of markets for which companies frequently adapt their products (France, Germany, Japan, and Spain), attractive developing markets (China and Russia), and locales for which English is often thought to be sufficient for most offerings (Sweden).

Unlocalized products cost more to buy, maintain, and enhance

One of the most common refrains we hear from software vendors and enterprise planners is that their foreign buyers and developers can handle English. Some go so far as to say, “Our administrators and application developers can get along just fine with English, thank you.” How valid is this point of view?

At Common Sense Advisory, we have long held this position to be suspect. We talk a lot with companies around the world and find that many employ lots of English-speaking staff; English may even be the “official” corporate language. But when we probe deeper, we hear about the increased expense of running English-only products.

They tend to pay more for bilingual developers and to provide support and training for English-language products. Furthermore, the availability of fully trained, bilingual staff might be lower in a given country, raising the total cost of ownership for that product. We find that this English-only “tax” rises as you go further south or east in Europe or head off to Asia.

What’s the solution? We always argue for buying localized software; that is, products with interfaces and documentation that have been translated and features that have been adapted to the business, cultural, or logistical needs of its target markets. This capability lowers the cost of developing, deploying, and managing a multinational or local business.

Deploying the right tools to the right people in the right countries is the goal of other corporate initiatives like customer relationship management, personalization, and Web site globalization. Why shouldn’t internal employees benefit from the same intention to provide tailored information and interfaces?

The need for localization spans the entire buying cycle

We asked our respondents about eight factors in the buying cycle in which localization plays a role. The initial decision to purchase a given product over another begins with marketing literature and technical specifications. Usability enters the equation, with both user interface and product documentation. Technical support rounds out the buying cycle for when things don’t quite work the way the manual says they should.

We asked our survey respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, “Having printed marketing and other collateral material in my language makes my organization more likely to purchase a software product.” More than 80% of respondents told us they agree with that statement.

As we expected, the outlier was Sweden, with just 60% of respondents preferring marketing materials in their own language. That means when marketers accept the conventional wisdom that English is enough for Sweden, they still leave three out of five buyers on the outside looking in. That’s not good for long-term sales. The other seven countries all came in at 80% or higher.

We also asked about the desirability of adapting the product interfaces to the linguistic, business, logistical, and cultural nuances of the country in which it is sold. This process involves a range of system components: the end-user interface, server and Web-based software, and application development tools. Eighty percent or more of our eight-country sample prefer a localized user interface and documentation in their own language for these components.

Proficiency influences purchase decisions

Our survey respondents told us that having information in their languages, from first contact to post-sales support, made them more likely to purchase a product. We found that up to two-thirds of potential users lack the language skills required to use English-language software.

Then we combined the various components that make up a product offering (translated information, localized zsoftware, and in-language technical support) to create an index of purchasing “desirability” from a localization perspective. The numbers range from four out of five in Sweden to nearly everyone in Germany, Russia, and Spain to all buyers in Brazil, China, France, and Japan.

Once we did the math across our eight countries, user groups, and components, we had no doubt that localization matters. Without adapting products to local needs, manufacturers leave anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of their audience not able to take full advantage of the software they’re using and causing additional support burdens to their companies, thus increasing the total cost of ownership.

Our survey tells us that most business buyers will not give full consideration to a product unless it has been localized from top to bottom. That means that products without translated materials stand just a one-in-five chance of making it to the short list. Can you afford to ignore 80% of your potential market?

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