You thought the 'e' stood for English?

The Internet means global business, which means you can't afford not to do business in another language.
Written by Maria Seminerio, Contributor

Your company just landed a killer business-to-business contract with a new customer in Portugal. While your executives are still slapping one another on the back, the client's CEO casually mentions that he wants all tech support done in Portuguese. Now what?

David Hume, director of global tech support at IBM's Personal Systems Group, in Raleigh, N.C., knows how this dilemma feels. Hume's group sells and distributes 2,000 product segments globally in eight languages. As part of its B2B push, the Personal Systems Group is driving more customer support to the Web. The goal is to cut use of its call center by 20 percent. But that means Hume's group will need to support customers in many languages, both online and on the phone.

As B2B goes global, language translation issues are becoming critical. Making your global B2B business multilingual, say experts like Hume, is a matter of finding people who are knowledgeable about local language and culture as well as deploying technologies such as automated language translation engines. "You can have a phrase that's commonly used in English that is highly inflammatory in Portuguese," Hume pointed out. Relying only on language translation software that makes a literal translation of such phrases can land the IBM unit in hot water with clients, he said.

After researching translation software options, the Per sonal Systems Group contracted with Lionbridge Technologies Inc., in Waltham, Mass. The company is a translation services provider that combines automated language translation technology with what Lionbridge calls "localization engineers" who make sure translations fit the local culture.

"Content management was a huge challenge," Hume said. "We looked at the geographies where we sell the most product and picked languages accordingly."

Although English is still the dominant business language worldwide, for American companies to offer tech support in local languages is often seen by non-U.S. clients as a plus, said Rory Cowan, CEO of Lionbridge.

"Americans want everyone to behave the same way we do, and it's just not so," Cowan said.

Hume's advice is for companies expanding B2B globally to combine automated language translation with people—hired from key partners—who are well-versed in the local language.

"It's important to remember that people need to deal with some of these translation issues. You can't automate the whole thing," he said. "In a perfect world, I wouldn't need a partner like Lionbridge because the technology would do it all."

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