Firms lose international business because they can’t speak their customers’ language.

By Stirling Austin

“You can buy in your own language but you must sell in the language of your customer” is an old saying in international trade that has been doing the rounds for a good few years now. It’s one that appears to ring true, especially since we need to cut new trade deals directly with different countries.

The importance of international languages

The British Council “Languages for the Future” report lists ten languages that will be of “crucial importance” for UK future prosperity: Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian. Research carried out by Conversis found that a quarter of UK companies and one in six US companies operating internationally have lost out on business opportunities because their employees don’t have the required foreign language skills.

In addition, the all-party parliamentary group on modern languages (APPG) calculated that poor language skills in the workforce. This costs the UK economy around £50 billion a year in lost contracts.

In an ever-increasing global market, things can be won or lost on small margins. Relationships matter as much as products. Companies trying to do cross-border business who are lacking in the ability to communicate with customers. They lack understanding the culture of their customer base and run the risk of losing out to better-prepared competitors.

Grave news for British firms. Approximately 75 percent of adults in the UK can’t speak a foreign language and we rank as one of the worst countries in Europe in terms of languages spoken. Yet three-quarters of the globe speak no English (only 6 percent speak it as a native language).trying

Trying to do business with customers when there’s a language barrier is fraught with problems, including:

  • Lack of rapport and relationship building
  • Poorly translated advertising messages
  • Poor or non-existent after-sales support creating a poor customer experience
  • Mistakes caused by miscommunication and poor translation

All of these things can be damaging to a firm’s reputation. This is why it pays to invest in staff with the right language skills – literally. A study by the British Chamber of Commerce found that export businesses proactive in their use of language and cultural skills achieve around 45 percent more sales on average. moreover, a multi-language website and online presence is a minimum first step to becoming visible in foreign markets.

Having the right multi-language strategy in place means that businesses Grow and can explore new opportunities, and will have a better grasp of the business culture of overseas customers (useful for tailoring those ad campaigns among other things). This will be better placed against other competing nations, and able to conduct business more efficiently.



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