E-mails leave firms tongue-tied

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Memo to the top 100 companies in the U.S.: It isn't called the World Wide Web for nothing.

A new study released by language service found that only 13% of the Fortune Top 100 U.S. companies responded to non-English e-mails in the same language as the original request. And more than 50% of the companies did not reply to foreign-language e-mails at all.

The study underscores the challenges brought about by a global network, as well as the opportunities that are available to the most

Acceptable Response Times
CompanyResponse Time Language Industry Country
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (MWD) 3 hours and 28 minutesSpanishFinancial ServicesUSA
AstraZeneca (AZN)3 hours and 50 minutes French Manufacturing UK
State Farm Insurance Cos (N/A) 13 hours and 37 minutes Spanish Financial Services USA
Bell South (BEL) 15 hours and 20 minutes Portuguese Information Technology USA
Home Depot (HD) 17 hours and 8 minutes Portuguese Retail and Wholesale USA
Bell Atlantic (BEL) 17 hours and 35 minutes German Information Technology USA
Lucent Technologies (LU) 22 hours, and 1 min Spanish Information Technology USA
Cable and Wireless – Optus Limited (CWO) 25 hours and 6 minutes Spanish Information Technology Australia
Unilever (UN) 28 hours and 46 minutes Spanish Retail and Wholesale UK

nimble companies, experts said.

While financial services company Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. generated e-mail replies to foreign-language requests in 3 hours and 28 minutes, stalwarts such as Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. failed to adequately deliver replies, Worldlingo said.

U.S. giants are slow to respond to foreign electronic communications, despite advisories from some of the bellwether Internet analysts. The research company IDC Inc. found people are four times more likely to buy something on either a business-to-consumer or b-to-b site if addressed in their native tongue. Forrester Research Inc. found that the average user session doubles if the local language and customs are recognized.

"The top companies of the world are not taking full advantage of the markets they are in," said Darcy Roark, product manager for Worldlingo's translation services. "One has to ask how you can sell into a market that you can't fully engage with."

But translation can be tricky. For example, a marketing message might have to be changed significantly when it is written in German because of what translators call "swelling"-when the typical English sentence becomes 40% longer in that language.

Another reason for linguistic laziness may be the sheer size of the nation's largest companies. Since many large organizations are multinational, with established offices in foreign countries, a native-tongue initiative requires coordination. Fiefdoms and other office politics can throttle the ability of these companies to coordinate e-mails in German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish or Japanese from the main corporate domain, Roark explained.

State Farm Insurance and BellSouth followed Morgan Stanley in making quick replies in native languages, while TIAA-Cref was among many that did not respond in the same language. The educational financial-services provider said: "To forward this to an outside service for interpretation would take several days, and not allow us to respond to you in the quickest manner. Can you resubmit your inquiry in English?"

That sort of response would be unacceptable for CODA-Financials Inc., a small accounting and procurement software vendor in the midst of a global expansion.

"Clearly, we need to be able to respond to customers and the most effective way to respond to them is in their own language," said Mike Parker, COO of CODA-Financials. The company, which has customers in 46 countries, last month formed an international channel management group, manages direct customer relationships in places such as Europe and Asia and has reseller relationships elsewhere.

CODA-Financials' corporate Web site includes links to appointed resellers in international markets, and domains coming from those countries are redirected to the site with local information.

"The technical work is trivial," Parker said. "The real work is in the philosophy of global business. You've got to accept that you can't do it all yourself and find organizations you can work with. It is not as easy as putting a pin in the Brazilian Yellow Pages. You have to find partners who are not competitive, able to support the product technically, and compatible in terms of business philosophies."

Automated translation

CODA-Financial's solution is to have foot soldiers on the streets, in the form of local representatives and partners. But that's not always an option, Roark said. Her company provides machine translation services for $25 per corporate user, plus 1 cent per user per message. The foreign-language e-mail is translated in an automated fashion and a hot button provides a quote on each message for professional translation by a language expert. There's a minimum monthly charge of $1,000 per corporate account.

Worldlingo CEO Phil Scanlan said many companies think automated translation of foreign-language e-mails is accurate enough to be useful, while professional translations are too slow and expensive. An automated translation service, by comparison, gives the gist of the message, which then allows the employee to ascertain whether an exact interpretation is necessary, Scanlan said.

"The e-mail translation allows the receivers to ascertain the importance of the e-mail," Scanlan said.

Poor translation cripples new business, said Dan Latendre, VP-marketing and business development for Internet provisioning company b2bScene Inc. The Internet start-up is forming local partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure that it can respond coherently to customer queries there. B2bScene tracks domain addresses and forwards them to partners in local markets, Latendre said.

"The whole notion of customer satisfaction retention is becoming a leading issue in b-to-b communities, and servicing the customer in their native language is one area where we think we can gain a competitive edge," Latendre said.

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