A Unified Customer Care Experience That Eliminates Linguistic and Cultural Borders


When communicating across international borders, language can be a big barrier. Non-native speakers may miss the nuances and complexities of a second language, leading to misunderstandings and miscommunication.

I’ve experienced many of these nuances and complexities myself. I grew up in South Africa, as one of the only English speakers in an Afrikaans neighbourhood, and had to learn to communicate in a language that wasn't my own. It can be tough to find the exact words for a given situation, even if you’ve been living somewhere for many years.

In a business setting, these difficulties are amplified. Despite their best intentions, bi- or multilingual customer care workers may inadvertently say or write the wrong thing, which can happen whether they're communicating in their native tongue or a second language. Companies have to find a way to help them get the message across every time. 

Moving Away from Transactional Customer Care

As the European Customer Care General Manager for Panasonic in Europe, I oversee a team that provides service and support in 23 languages to users in 24 European countries. Many of our frontline colleagues are based in Eastern Europe and are proficient in at least one language other than their mother tongue. But even the best of them can't write or speak their second language as well as a native speaker. I had to find a way to eliminate linguistic obstacles and gaps in communication that impact the quality of customer care.  

Linguistic obstacles and gaps in communication can greatly impact the quality of #customer care.

I was hired a couple of years ago to retool our customer care department. The then-new Panasonic Customer Service Director wanted to move away from a transactional customer care experience, by adopting a customer-centred service delivery model. Instead of simply replying to customer queries, we wanted our frontline colleagues to have meaningful conversations. We trained them to help customers get the most from our products and to suggest complementary Panasonic goods or services that would enhance the end-user experience.

When I accepted this role, some of our stakeholders were disenfranchised. They saw customer care as a cost centre rather than an opportunity to grow sales and build consumer loyalty. During the last two years, we’ve put our arms around these key stakeholders and our outsourcing partner to bring them closer to our long-term vision. We’ve aligned them with our new customer-centric focus — all the while building a culture around adding value to every communication. This is reflected in how we measure success within customer care. We target customer advocacy, customer effort, customer success, and customer emotion, all captured through customer survey responses.

As a result of these efforts, we created a group of dedicated customer care agents who serve as frontline ambassadors for Panasonic. They actively represent its company culture and work as a unified team, even though our customer care facilities are scattered across Europe. Once that transformation took place, our agents became just as invested as I was in making sure our customer communication was as seamless as it could be. That meant it was time to focus on language.

A Combination of Human and Machine Intelligence

Knowing the intricacies of spoken language can be challenging enough, but there are cultural and unspoken rules of language, too. On top of training our customer care colleagues to add value to every communication from a product perspective, we also taught them how to engage, to build rapport, and empathise with people from cultures other than their own. When a customer feels respected and knows that we have their best interests in mind, they are more likely to overlook minor errors in spelling, grammar, and diction, or the occasional awkward turn of phrase.

This training improved the skills of our individual agents, but we still had to address one critical issue: We needed to optimise the way we delivered email service in specific countries. We went to the market to examine automated language solutions, but nothing inspired us to take things a step further. 

Not long after we began our search, a company called Unbabel reached out to me via LinkedIn and asked if we had multilingual challenges in our business. The timing was perfect, and I thought it was worth a conversation. I learned that Unbabel uses robust AI algorithms to perform machine translations that are then verified by a community of experienced translators. I was impressed by the accuracy of Unbabel's translations and had tremendous confidence in the way the company combined human and machine intelligence to produce fast and rigorous results.

It was apparent from the beginning that Unbabel could solve our written communication concerns for several European languages we support, so we decided to try it out.

A Hyper-Engaged Deployment

Before we could implement Unbabel, we spent two months examining the IT security of the platform, with support from our internal IT Planning and Governance teams in Germany and Japan. Panasonic takes great care to protect its customers' data and privacy and is extremely careful when implementing new technology, especially a cloud-based solution like Unbabel. Once it became clear Unbabel was secure, we moved ahead with our rollout. 

The deployment was straightforward and efficient. We shared samples of emails with Unbabel's team to give them a taste of real-world communications with our customers. Next, we compiled a glossary of terms, common phrases, product names, and acronyms. They fed all this data into their translation engine and began training it to recognise these words and phrases, and tweaked their algorithms from there. 

We followed this up with extensive user-acceptance testing. We sent out trial emails, got a sense of the quality of translation, and revised some of our settings. Finally, we rolled out Unbabel to our Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Dutch email channels. 

Teams that work fast and embrace agile methodologies need to work with #technology partners that match that intensity.

Some vendors are very active at the beginning of a project, but once the initial hype and excitement die down, they fade into the background. That wasn't the case with Unbabel at all. Unbabel's team has helped us every step of the way. They were hyper-engaged throughout the process, full of energy and enthusiasm. That excitement rubbed off on us, too.

My customer care team works fast. We operate at a very high level and embrace agile methodologies. Unbabel's team matched us step for step and continues to support us with the same level of intensity. 

Refining Our Translations

As great as the possibilities were, we did encounter a snag early on. The Dutch language is particularly complex, especially once you introduce different dialects and/or slang. We noticed that we received far more errors in Dutch than with our Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian emails; we needed to identify the problem and correct it quickly. 

We met with Unbabel's team and provided them with some of the erroneous copy we’d received. We also asked them to work with our internal Dutch stakeholders to resolve our issues. The process was very collaborative and transparent. Our internal agents checked the translations, identified inaccuracies, and made corrections before sending replies to customers. Unbabel incorporated this feedback into their algorithms and, over the course of six months, vastly improved the quality of its Dutch translations. 

We still meet with the Unbabel team regularly and continue to work with them to refine translations in all five languages. I have also started to use the Unbabel portal's reporting tool to support our internal agents and to help improve the quality of their individual customer communications. We look at metrics like response times and word counts and use our findings to train our agents on how to compose concise emails, write short sentences, and eliminate jargon. By simplifying their writing, they can create content that is easier for Unbabel to interpret and for customers to understand. 

Revisiting Customer Experience Metrics

As part of our customer care transformation efforts, we also overhauled how the Panasonic Customer Service Department defines success. Rather than use traditional contact centre metrics, we now use more customer-focused metrics like net promoter score (NPS), customer efforts, customer success, and customer emotion. So now, when we talk with our internal stakeholders about success, we are talking about how we have influenced customer loyalty and engagement either positively or negatively. 

Despite the changes behind the scenes, we were pleased to see that our net promoter score (NPS) has remained high in the eight months since we implemented Unbabel. We have reduced the cost of providing support in the five languages (Nordics +NL) by about 60% and doubled our service levels. We went from answering 50% of customer emails in 24 hours to a 100% response rate.

The only reason we can achieve these figures is because we now have a scalable pool of English-speaking agents who can log into Unbabel and reply to Dutch and Nordic-language customer communications. 

A Tactical Approach to Future Technologies

My team is very proactive in their approach to new technology; we identify a discrete challenge, or opportunity, clarify the requirements and seek out a technology solution. We had a very specific language issue and found something that addressed that problem brilliantly. Unbabel helped us solve our email language workflow and has also given us the tools we need to innovate further. 

In the future, we want to explore how we can use Unbabel in real-time to allow our English-speaking agents to live chat with colleagues and customers in French, German, Dutch, and other languages. Unbabel may also play a role in future applications like interactive voice response (IVR) systems, AI-driven self-service repair platforms, and contextual FAQs. Our goal is to make the customer care process frictionless, whether consumers are interacting with our contact centre agents or dealing with algorithms. 

Finally Speaking the Same Language

Following our success in the Nordic countries, Panasonic soft-launched Unbabel in Bulgaria, Poland, and the Czech Republic, with plans to fully launch in April 2021. Although we have finalised our workflows, we are still fine-tuning the system's output and refining the way it translates text into these three new languages. 

Never underestimate the power of being acknowledged and understood.

Never underestimate the power of being acknowledged and understood. Unbabel empowers our customer care team to provide Panasonic customers in Europe with an in-depth understanding of their concerns and the means to communicate a response uniquely tailored to their needs. Now, we provide our customers with a unified and outstanding experience regardless of the language they speak.