Language choices in external communication - issues of adaptation

External communication, especially in selling - business to customer/client (B2C) - lies at the core of all reflections and preoccupations about language needs, policies and practices in business. The common adage is, of course, that you can easily buy anything in your own language, but to sell you must use the customer’s. This idea supposedly reflects the power imbalance in the buyers’ markets that predominate today, which puts sellers in a weaker position and forces them to adapt linguistically. It is not entirely erroneous, but certainly somewhat simplified.

In practice, things may turn out to be more complex, that is, there seem to be products and businesses that are so successful that they sell quite independently of the language strategy adopted. Such market dominance manifests itself in our case studies in two rather different ways. First, in line with expectations, it may result (at least partly) from a well-planned and constantly-refined distribution/language policy. Second, it may derive from the excellence of the product concerned: as we all know, some products simply sell themselves. The latter case is exemplified by one of our Austrian studies (Feurle 2009), which found that neither language policy nor, for example, the company’s webpage are taken very seriously because there is no perceived need to do so. However, we will leave aside such cases and turn to ‘business as usual’, that is, markets with strong competition where sellers must fight to win the customer’s favour.

Here, one of the main findings of studies such as Back (2004) is that the need to address the customer’s language issues is closely linked to the choice of distribution channel. Thus, use of a zero-stage channel, where contact with the customer is direct, will require provision to be made for the necessary language skills within the company’s own staff. If, on the other hand, the chain is extended, either by engaging a sales agent or by establishing a joint venture or subsidiary, the language problem is converted from an external to an internal communication issue, or something very similar. In fact, the linguistic power balance is simply inverted. While companies that deal directly with their customers/clients generally find themselves in the weaker position and are thus forced to adapt linguistically, companies that make use of sales agents, joint ventures or subsidiaries will probably be able to force these to adapt - or at least to fall back on a lingua franca (in general, English). This shows how language issues in business are intrinsically related to the power balance between seller and buyer. Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012: 82) confirm this finding, describing in Danish companies they study the “outsourcing of language needs (with the exception of English) from the head office to native-speaking affiliates and agents, or to affiliates perceived as having linguistic expertise.” Of course, a large number of companies adopt a combined strategy, creating subsidiaries in the most important markets and working through commercial agents or sales managers in the minor ones. These intermediaries are in general very competent in the languages of the countries they cover.

Distribution channels in exportation (cf. Back and Lavric 2009

Figure 13.2: Distribution channels in exportation (cf. Back and Lavric 2009: 48)

An alternative to the view that “to sell you must adapt” is the conviction that “nowadays everybody speaks English, English being the universal language in business”.[1] This, too, is not completely wrong; under certain circumstances it is indeed possible to be successful with “English only”. Among our case studies, we find two pertinent examples. The first (Zipser 2009) is of a Tyrolean appliances manufacturer, with production sites in Hungary and China, that exports virtually worldwide. Its practice is to set up a subsidiary in every single new market and to require all communication inside the group to be in English and to pass through headquarters. Our second example is a small company producing drinks for children. It has achieved significant export success by cooperating in every foreign market with a local distributor who speaks both English and the local language, and who is in charge of adapting the entire marketing strategy, including the product name, to the local situation.

The success of an English-only strategy is heavily dependent on the use of intermediated distribution channels. Moreover, this strategy is seen to be a fiction as soon as the whole system, for example an entire multinational company, is considered. For the language problem is not really solved; it is simply delegated to subsidiaries or distributors, who must make considerable efforts to provide language competences. Therefore, what constitutes a good solution for external communication can pose serious problems for internal communication. Truchot (2009) reflects critically on this practice, focusing on the power imbalance between headquarters and subsidiaries, and on the inequalities that arise through an English-only internal- communication policy.

Also relevant here is the study by Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012) of multinationals operating in Denmark. It investigates, not language needs per se, but the representations of those needs. For it soon becomes patent that nearly all participants share the idea that English is sufficient for all purposes, and attribute communication problems to the often poor English skills of their interlocutors (e.g. in French- and Spanish-speaking countries). In doing so, they ignore the possibility that the real causes lie in their own lack of knowledge of local languages and a failure to perceive their relevance. This result - a typical example of what Vandermeeren (1998) and (2005) would call an unconscious language need - can be explained by the sample of companies chosen, which mainly comprised a number of Danish groups, each with several foreign affiliates. Thus Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen’s study reveals, not the language policies and practices of multinationals, but the nature of internal communication between head offices and foreign subsidiaries. Interestingly, their sample also included one Danish affiliate of a foreign company, which - not unexpectedly - reported communication problems with its head office.

Having dealt with these real or apparent exceptions, let us now come to our main point: the crucial importance of linguistic adaptation (“speaking the customer’s language”) as a success factor in business. This applies particularly to certain sectors where standardisation (i.e., the adoption of a lingua franca like English) is only a second choice, while “compliance” has an overwhelming importance in commercial relationships (see Section 2.4). As a result, companies must provide in some part of their structure the language competences that are necessary for adapting to their customers’ needs.

This is especially true for service companies, and even more for businesses working in tourism, who usually engage directly with their clients and can hardly outsource language skills. It seems to be in tourism that - unsurprisingly - we find the most versatile code-switchers. Two of our Tyrolean case studies investigate tourist information bureaus (Albel 2009; Reichl 2009), one using a language diary that shows a switching rate of one switch every two or three minutes. The best way for a company to assure good external communication is, of course, to make use of its own personnel, which means recruiting staff with specific language skills (especially native speakers), or providing language training for existing employees (usually during employees’ free time, but financed by the company). We can cite the case of one Tyrolean bank (Handle 2009) that opened a special office for Italian clients only, partly by employing Italian native speakers and partly by funding language courses for its staff. As for Mrazova’s (2005, 2009) investment bank in Paris, it uses a special team of native (or near-native) speakers for every one of its important markets. And the case study of the timber industry in Tyrol (Steiner 2009) - a sector that depends to a very large extent on the Italian market - shows that highly professional companies do not employ just one specialist for the most important foreign language; they systematically ensure that other competent speakers are on hand should the specialist be unavailable.

Like other aspects of a business’s operation, language needs are always subject to cost-benefit considerations with their corresponding trade-offs. Even if it is intuitively obvious that foreign language skills impact positively on business results, considerable problems arise as soon as it comes to measuring their benefits. For these are neither operational nor easily quantified, while the costs involved are concrete and readily quantifiable. In addition, they are incurred in the short term, whereas a good language policy will only bear fruit after a certain period of time. No wonder, then, that - despite fulsome declarations of the need for foreign-language competences - a very simple language investment in a certain market area can fall victim to cuts once its marginal utility is questioned (see Back and Lavric 2009: 58). What is more, companies are keenly aware of the changing importance of particular markets, which may lead to recruitment, but also to dismissals as soon as a market seems to lose significance. For example, one of the companies in Back’s (2004: 281) study employed an agent for the Russian and Arab markets, but, as sales went down, it hired his services as a freelance instead. Finally, from the individual’s point of view, language competences hardly ever pay off in salary terms, but they may be decisive in being recruited at all.

This rational interplay of supply and demand does not always apply, however, as it can be shown that some companies simply fail to take advantage some language skills already available among their employees. This kind of short-sightedness often occurs with very well integrated immigrants from Eastern Europe, who are seen as having fully assimilated to their host countries (see Mrazova 2005 and 2009). In fact, companies should have a detailed insight into the language skills of their entire workforce because one of the results of our case studies is that language competences to some extent create their own market opportunities. That is, a businessperson with a particular language competence will more easily come upon the idea of conquering the corresponding market(s), especially in small companies, where no overall language strategy can easily be implemented. Here the language skills of the company’s head or - more rarely - of a single employee can be decisive for entering a certain market.[2]

As we have noted, providing the necessary language skills in-house is often the first and best choice for companies (although not cost-neutral). It is true that, for certain types of documents or situations, it may be more convenient to resort to external translating and interpreting services. However, our case studies show that these are rarely used, and can be problematic because of the need for specialised terminology. Only big companies with a radical adaptation strategy report that they regularly use translation services, in general for web pages, leaflets, contracts and other written documents. This is the case especially for freight forwarders (cf. Klammer 2009; Maser 2009), who are the absolute champions when it comes to multilingual homepages. But other companies, especially those with highly technological products, complain about the low accuracy level of translations done by professional translation bureaus. They tend to revert to their own personnel and/or have their translations checked by long-standing customers. Those who do turn to outside translators consistently use the same individuals, who thus build up a certain competence over the years (cf. Graber 2009; Zipser 2009; also Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen 2012: 83).

Another question is: where (i.e., in which positions) do foreign language competences tend to be found? The answer is that, while sales managers and secretaries generally possess language skills, these are much rarer - and would often be badly needed - among technical staff. Interestingly, it is not always the highest levels in the corporate hierarchy that are most linguistically skilled, a fact that may reflect the dominant role of English in top business negotiations. Instead, competences are found above all among those employees that deal with foreign customers on a day-to-day basis; in a hotel, for example (see Heis 2009), that includes nearly everybody, from the reception desk to the waiters and the tennis coaches. The same is true for a retail bank or an investment bank (see Mrazova 2005 and 2009). In manufacturing and commercial firms, competences are found among sales managers, who often spend a large part of their time travelling from customer to customer (or from subsidiary to subsidiary). They are important also for secretaries and executive staff who deal with foreign customers via email or phone.

One domain where language skills are almost always missing is that of technical assistance. It seems hard to find technicians with adequate competences, although they are urgently required by many companies. However, especially if the product concerned is technically more sophisticated, we find a certain type of linguistically- competent engineer who acts as instructor and trouble-shooter. He or she interacts directly with technicians abroad (who themselves often lack language skills), relying on shared technical knowledge and refined specialist terminology. One such troubleshooter, employed for the Latin American market (see Feurle 2009), affirms that language skills account for 80% of his job and technical skills only 20%. In the company studied by Lechner (2010), technicians sent to Russia communicated with their local colleagues through basic notions of Russian, gestures and drawings; as this did not work fully satisfactorily, the firm hired a translation student - the researcher - as a language expert.

A further aspect of external communication, much less remarked on than dealings with customers/clients, is that of communication with suppliers. Certainly, as we have already pointed out, the language issue is seen as much less relevant in purchasing. But it can be important there too, and the complacent attitude that companies often adopt as soon as they are in the buyer’s position can be a little short-sighted. Thus linguistic competences relevant for alternative suppliers’ markets might open up new possibilities and help to cut costs. This was the case for one of the companies studied by Back (2004: 259), which made use of Italian competences in its purchasing department. The point is definitely proven by the Tyrol fruitimporting company (Loretz 2009) whose whole corporate strategy rests on the excellent Spanish competences of its two bosses, which enable them to manage direct contacts with all their important suppliers. Ironically, for sales purposes this company employs its local dialect of German.

To conclude our discussion of how companies can best generate language skills, we want to add an interesting empirical observation. According to our studies, all (successful) managers think that their approach to the language issue is the optimal one. Thus managers who acquired their language competences at university tend to look for those with a similar educational background, while managers who learned a language during a stay in a country where it is spoken prefer staff with comparable experience abroad. And managers who themselves have done very well with English only (cf. Stiebellehner 2009) are convinced that their employees need no further language skills - in some cases, remaining blissfully unaware that their employees report regular use of a wide range of languages.

Finally, one type of situation which must be considered rather apart from the day-to-day language business is that of high-level negotiations, which form a very special kind of communicative setting with its own set of rules. There, the normal economics of language choice (in sociolinguistics: “code choice”) are overruled by a strong need to put both parties involved on an equal footing, which will generally exclude using the mother tongue of either and militate in favour of a lingua franca. Even language-friendly managers, who usually miss no opportunity to practice their other competences, report that they conduct negotiations almost exclusively in

English. However, small talk at the beginning or during pauses provides a good opportunity to use a partner’s own language and thus score on the sympathy scale (see, e.g., Back 2004: 234, 282). It might be this role of English in top-level negotiations that contributes to the conviction of some top managers that English alone is sufficient in business, and that other language competences are superfluous (see also Truchot 2009).[3] That conviction, in turn, will tend to lead them to implement an English-only language policy inside their organisation as well, and it is to such internal communication that we will now turn.

  • [1] Among those who hold such a position, is Neely (2012), who is cited as a negative example inBellak (2014: 299). Neely states that “English is the common business language of choice in the 21stcentury, regardless of company origin or headquarter location” (p. 236) and that “[t]here’s no question that unrestricted multilingualism is inefficient and can prevent important interactions fromtaking place and get in the way of achieving key goals” (p. 118).
  • [2] In one of the case studies (Stiebellehner 2009), a company had recruited a man with Japaneseorigins only for his English competences, but ended up confiding the Japan business to him. Thereis also the example (Feurle 2009) of the small company that had - by chance - recruited anemployee with Latvian roots, which gave it the idea of exporting to Latvia. The same company sellsits products in Bulgaria through the Bulgarian brother-in-law of one of its employees. Finally, one ofthe companies we studied (Graber 2009) was employing two Scandinavian women in production,but it was planned that they would change over to the marketing department as soon as thecompany started exporting to Scandinavia.
  • [3] Truchot (2009) points out the link between the introduction of English-only as a corporate language (he calls it “vehicular English”) and the everyday linguistic environment of high managers.Increasingly, managers, who are often socialised professionally in English-speaking countries andfollow a truly international career path, have the habit to communicate at work only in English,which might provoke alienating effects towards local employees at lower hierarchal levels, producemisunderstandings and even cause dangerous issues of security in production and service. See alsoa hint to the same problem in Millar, Cifuentes, and Jensen (2012: 91).
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