Nearshore Americas

Call Centers Serving U.S. Hispanics Need More Than Espanol

The Hispanic population in the United States is the fastest growing group of people in the country, and that means more potential customers for providers of call-center services. But to grab a piece of that growing pie, call centers are going to have to do more than simply put Spanish-speaking staff members in seats.

The U.S. Hispanic population is currently estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau to be about 47 million, and projected to reach 60 million in 2020. After that, the number will increase by about 10 million every 10 years, according to government predictions.

Besides the increase in numbers, the Hispanic community is evolving in ways that will require some significant adjustments by call-center providers. The biggest change is language: People of Hispanic descent in the States are increasingly showing a preference for English, not Spanish.

This was one of the more surprising findings in a report just released by Ovum Research, “Targeting the U.S. Hispanic Market with CRM Outsourcing.” The report identifies key issues that call centers need to consider as they develop their strategies for serving this demographic.

Bilinguals Only, Please

Peter Ryan, Ovum’s lead analyst for contact center outsourcing and BPO, told us: “We’re seeing a preponderance of the language of preference being English. From a Nearshore standpoint, that means call centers in Central America and South America will need to strengthen and emphasize their bilingual capabilities. Spanish-only will not be enough.”

“If you’ve got a Spanish-language call center now, that’s going to be a fairly big adaptation you have to make quickly,” Ryan said. “Providers are going to have to recruit more people with bilingual skills, or train up the staff they have now.” Based on the types of people who are being recruited by contact centers these days, “they  can probably switch over quickly,” he said.

But is the talent pool deep enough to meet growing demand for English-Spanish speakers? “In some countries that might be an issue,” Ryan said. “In the bigger countries like Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the pool is becoming less deep due to the levels of investment, but if you want to find the right people, you can.”

(During a recent trip to Honduras, Ryan said, he was “impressed by the level of bilingual ability among students. Twenty-five percent are going to institutions where English is the language of instruction.”)

“It’s very important to be able to create rapport with the customer. In Nicaragua, for example, baseball is very big, so you can talk about the Yankees or whomever the caller roots for.” Knowing that there are many Elm Streets in America can also help. “You can lose some edge if you can’t spell common street names” – Salvador Salazar, Stream Global Services

But it’s not just language skills. Central American locations “are very strong contenders for doing voice-based work for customers in the U.S.,” Ryan said, because that’s where most Hispanic immigrants to the States have roots. Census figures show that most Hispanics in the States come from Mexico, but the number of people who trace family origins back to El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua is also significant.

As a result of these ties, there’s a certain “empathy for and understanding of” North America, Ryan said. That’s not to say you can’t get good service out of South America, he noted, but “there are more arguments to say that operations out of Colombia or Chile or Argentina might be best to serve European customers.”

“Go to a city like Buenos Aires,” Ryan said, “and you’ll see product brands from Europe, the sense of dress is European, there’s a European flavor.  That’s not to say you cant teach cultural affinity, but in may South American countries, there’s more preponderance toward Spain than the U.S.”

Ryan’s research reveals another thing that call-center managers should be aware of: Hispanic callers tend to spend more time with an agent, asking deeper and “more thoughtful” questions. “Average handle times go up marginally or significantly when dealing with people from the Hispanic community,” Ryan said. “If you’re used to working only with the general population of the U.S., if you’re not ready for someone looking for more information or support, it might prove to be a bit surprising.”

“This is part of the cultural sensitivity companies need to impart to their agents and to incorporate in their quality metrics,” Ryan said.

Migrating to English

We checked in with one service provider to see if they’re seeing this transition in the U.S. Hispanic community, and how they might deal with it. Stream Global Services has three centers in Latin America — in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (as well as one in the Dominican Republic) — to serve clients in North America. The company services Spanish- and English-speaking customers of multinational companies, including some major technology firms.

Salvador Salazar, (member of the 2010 Power 50 Ranking) the San Salvador-based area vice-president of Latin American Operations, said Stream’s experience reflects the language trend that Ovum identified. “We’ve found on support calls that when we talk to first-generation Hispanics in the U.S., or someone who has just migrated, they prefer Spanish,” he said. “But second- and third-generation people want to speak English. The number of calls in Spanish is holding steady, but we have seen a definite increase in the number of people who want to have a discussion in English.”

Stream has dealt with this by recruiting bilingual talent. “We don’t go for purely Spanish-speaking employees any more,” Salazar said. “Our agents now have to be 100 percent bilingual. For most of our clients, all the training is in English.” The ideal agent, he said, combines English skils with technical knowledge.

Stream draws about 40 percent of its bilingual staff from people who have moved to the States and then returned to El Salvador. “These people are kind of native speakers,” Salazar said. “Their English is very good, accent is good, comprehension is good.”

Creating Rapport

Salazar, too, mentioned cultural affinity as very important when serving the U.S. market. Stream tries to infuse this into its staff members. “It’s very important to be able to create rapport with the customer,” he said. “In Nicaragua, for example, baseball is very big, so you can talk about the Yankees or whomever the caller roots for.” Knowing that there are many Elm Streets in America can also help. “You can lose some edge if you can’t spell common street names,” Salazar said.

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Although Stream has been able to find or develop bilingual talent, “the pipeline is not keeping up with growth,” Salazar said. “Nearshore companies need a commitment from their governments to implement programs to enhance the English level. We have a lot of clients who want to come to Latin America, who got tired of India or the Philippines, but getting the resources, that bilingual agent, is becoming harder every year.”

And while the U.S. Hispanic population is growing in spending power and economic sophistication, call-center providers need to choose their markets carefully. Big-time corporations like McDonald’s and some automakers gear sales efforts specifically toward the Hispanic community, but “some research shows a good number of American enterprises have decided not to market to that demographic separately,” Ryan said. “While there is enthusiasm for the U.S. Hispanic market, it’s not necessarily universal.”

Many companies are strapped for cash and don’t have the capacity to target two different populations. The outsourcing industry needs to approach each vertical market carefully, Ryan said. However, he added, “if a CRM outsourcer says it’s never going to offer bilingual services, that can be a kind of a deal breaker.”

Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.

1 comment

  • As long as there are multinationals like McDonald's that want to specifically target the American Hispanics, then there will always be a sure niche for nearshore call centers. However, the niche is going to stay small, and competition will get tight.