Mind The (Language) Gap
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“Mind the gap!” A phrase often heard at railway stations or on the subway: voiced during announcements or indicated by signs, it encourages people to avoid falling between the train and the platform. It refers to a physical distance and a dangerous hole that suitcases, legs, and small children might disappear into. It is the moment of moving between one customer experience and the next: the starting point and solution, the vehicle and the destination, the expectation and the reality. But are there other gaps?
You might think that the travel industry has globalization and localization under control; airlines have always taken pride in multilingual cabin crew and today produce apps in multiple languages; companies such as Avis, Booking.com, Hotels.com, and TripAdvisor all shine with multilingual content, and Airbnb uses language as a platform feature.
Yet, travelers commonly encounter global customer experience gaps at the point when they need them the least. Gaps are particularly visible when things go wrong at the airport, train station, hotel reception, and other places where human touch is vital, and reliance on an app may not be enough. Fast-changing pandemic rules and staffing shortages can compound the challenges. All these represent spots where – if uncared for – the end-to-end customer experience can tarnish.
- The confusion. You are in an airport in a country where you do not speak the local language. You bought your ticket online through a multilingual website and have installed the airline’s app on your phone. You have successfully checked in and have gone through boarding but end up waiting in a dark corridor – you are not allowed out to the tarmac to the plane. You try the app to see if there is any information about your flight, but – typical to certain areas of airports – no WiFi or phone signal are accessible. You hear a mumbled announcement in a language you do not understand. What do you do?
- The stress. You are on a train, and you know you have a tight connection to make the next part of your journey. The train stops in the middle of nowhere. You cannot understand an announcement and you find nobody to ask. What do you do?
- The panic. You are in an airport in your home country and the gate staff shout out that there is a last minute gate change. Half the people who are waiting to board are returning to their homes overseas and did not understand what the airline employee said. You ask the employee if they can repeat it in the destination language, but they refuse. What do you do?
- The anger. You miss a connection because you find no information in your language – and now you are stuck. What do you do?
Scenarios like these happen each and every day for travelers around the world. Language gaps damage the customer experience, add stress to what should be a pleasant event, and make voyagers consider choosing a different option next time. Lack of information in problematic situations damages customer loyalty and leads people to post negative reviews online.
What could transport companies have done better? Airport staff, train conductors, and other workers could be equipped with translation apps to enable them to push notifications displayed in the languages of travelers in all places where WiFi does not reach. MT might prove good-enough to avoid confusion, stress, panic, or anger: customers will prefer imperfect but understandable information over nothing at all. Employees could benefit from machine interpreting applications such as KITT, pioneered by Deutsche Bahn.
The common factor across these situations is to plan for ways to communicate with customers not just when all goes well but also in critical moments. That will enhance the overall experience and show the company cares. And it is not limited to physical travel on trains, boats, and planes – any customer journey has similar gaps to avoid.
- Know your audience. The tech-savviness of an airport crowd may range from business travelers to mothers with toddlers to seniors on their way to visit grandkids, or to a loud crowd on the way to a sporting event or days on the beach. They will not all have installed an app, nor will they automatically assume that delays will be posted there. They might expect a human voice to announce information in a language they can understand.
- Care for passengers at all stages. If marketing, sales, and product documentation are available in the local language, are there any gaps? What about customer care, returns information, and support? How do you inform people of delays or problems? And for a phone call center, can humans answer in the local language – or, in multicultural communities, easily communicate?
- Calculate what any gaps are costing you. Tools can help: 1) assess where your global customer experience is lacking; and 2) demonstrate the effect on customers’ engagement. As well as your online presence, evaluate the human touchpoints along the journey to see if your global community is missing out along the way.
It's not only the travel industry that must worry about gaps. Whether companies sell products or services or simply interact with a domestic multilingual audience, organizations must figure out where the holes are and provide solutions to overcome them. While train stations have historically announced, “Mind the gap”, to warn passengers of the danger, ideally there would be no need for a warning: a cover would automatically slide into place so that nobody notices the gap. Adopt this with your CX language gaps: address them in a way that nobody notices there was a hole in the global customer experience.
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