How to Politely Determine a Caller's Preferred Language to Improve Customer Service | Small Business Advice

Sean Lund-Brown

If you’re looking to deliver the best customer service experience, offering bilingual support might be something to consider. After all, there is a growing Hispanic population in the U.S., and when you combine that with the fact that the Internet has turned every brand into a global business, it never hurts to have extra support. 

Typically, companies should offer language support for their audience’s most common languages. In most cases for U.S. companies, it’s English and Spanish. In cities like Quebec, they may offer English and French (or French Canadian). You’ve got to do what’s best for your business. Which, of course, starts with figuring out just what that is.

After all, you don’t just want to start every call in English and assume that’ll work for your customers. You also don’t want to jump in with “Hi, English or Spanish?!?” as soon as you pick up the line. So, how do you professionally and politely determine peoples’ preferred languages when they call your business?

Well, you’ve got a few different options. In this guide, we’ll talk about the importance of taking advantage of them to implement a solution that works for your business. First, though, let’s talk about the case for having bilingual customer service in your small business. 

You cannot have great customer service without solid, inclusive, complete communication solutions. 

Focus specifically on the word “inclusive”—if you want to reach your audience, you have to meet them where they are. If they’re calling in Spanish, you need to have agents that can respond in kind. So, beyond the musts, let’s talk about the perks of adding this feature. Then we’ll talk more about how to actually do it. 


The benefits of going bilingual 


As mentioned above, the growing Hispanic population, combined with the global nature of the Internet, are creating a world where even the smallest of small businesses may have no option but to start offering bilingual or multilingual service. You don’t have to go all out, of course, but you should consider at least offering the two main languages that typical U.S. consumers speak: English and Spanish. 

Offering it is one thing, though—how do you go about actually figuring out what people need? Is there a right or wrong way to ask? Can you assume just by how someone picks up the phone or their response when you answer? There’s a lot to consider here, but we’ll start by telling you that you should never assume. Not only does that give customers a bad impression, but you could become the victim of a lawsuit related to accused racism or discrimination of some kind. 

Sure, you weren’t trying to mean any harm, but some people aren’t always so understanding. You have to plan for every contingency, and today, that includes the potential that you may take on a bigger Spanish-speaking audience as your business continues to grow. 

Increase your customer base: More than 21% of all residents in the U.S. alone speak another language besides English at home, and Spanish is the second-most common spoken language in the country. 

Over 45 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish as their native, first, or second language. This has nearly doubled in just two decades. 

In case that’s not reason enough to consider it, here are some perks to keep in mind:

  • Provide the optimal user experience: The first concern of customer service is to resolve the needs of your customers. Having bilingual representatives ensures that this can be facilitated with all callers, including those who don’t speak English as a native language. 
  • Improve brand reputation: When your company offers customer service to your audience that is inclusive and comprehensive, you’re going to get a better reputation as a result. That will, in turn, lead to increased brand loyalty and retention. 
  • Improve efficiency: When you’ve got bilingual agents available and capable of fielding all the calls and chats that come in, it streamlines your operations. Customers spend less time waiting for assistance and you spend less time fumbling with online translation tools or scrambling to find the one person in the office that speaks Spanish. 
  • Increases your competitive edge: If customers need a company that offers bilingual service and the choice is between one that does and one that doesn’t, they’re obviously going to choose the former based on that feature alone. When you add that to the rest of the things you’re doing better than the competition, you’ll stand out even more. 


Ok, so we’ve talked about some of the benefits here. So, let’s settle on the fact that you do need to invest in bilingual service— it’s time to take the question off the table so we can focus on how you can provide that service in a polite, professional, inclusive manner.


How to determine your callers’ language preferences


Bear in mind that there’s no guaranteed method here. It’s not about finding the “trick” or seeking out the perfect solution. It’s about figuring out a way to do it that works for your brand. There are several different options, from simply recognizing when someone starts speaking that their English is broken or that they are struggling to form words, to outright asking people if they are fine to continue in English or if they prefer to speak in Spanish for their comfort and ease of understanding. 

The easiest option and one that a lot of businesses choose (for several reasons) is to use an automated attendant or Interactive Voice Recording (IVR) that greets callers and gives them the choice of language preferences before connecting them to an agent. 

For brands that are committed to live answers, this option can be difficult to choose because it cuts out one of their biggest value adds: a live person, first and foremost, at the other end of the line when a customer calls. 

However, it may be the only viable option that doesn’t cut into your efficiency or other operations too much. Let’s take a closer look at how you can actually go about this. 


IVR or auto-attendant options


If you employ an automated answering system to greet people before a live person answering the phone, even if only for a few seconds, you can often include the language option here. You’ve probably heard it before yourself when calling certain places. It’s just a recording that says something like:

“For English, press one or stay on the line. Para Español, o prima dos.”

These responses are fairly standard in most interactive voice recording (IVR) or auto attendant phone systems. Sometimes, it’s worded differently, and you may have different options as to how to present it to your audience, but that will depend on the service that you use. 

Some people who use auto attendants for the entire routing process stick to this method because it’s the most efficient. However, for those who are answering live calls and have live agents on the other end, it can prove to be a bit more of a challenge. 


What about live agents?


Of course, then there’s the small business (and the smart business) that has a live person answering the phone every single time. How, then, can you tactfully determine a caller’s language preference before getting too far into the conversation or without doing so in an offensive manner? The good news is that you can stop panicking. Despite what you might think, the average caller isn’t going to be “offended” if you ask them if they have a language preference, so long as you do it properly. 

If you want to find out which language your callers prefer and you can’t discern it just from the answer, here are some good tips and telephone etiquette rules to keep in mind. 

  • Be polite and smile when you talk. This way, no matter how uncomfortable the subject is, the caller can sense that you’re warm and inviting and will know you’re just trying to give them the best service possible. 
  • Start each call with a short accessibility survey. After you get the caller’s name and information (or even right after the greeting), you can ask them if they mind answering a few brief questions to ensure that you can serve them in the best way possible. Then, you can ask if they’re okay to discuss things on the phone, if they can hear you okay, and if they are okay to continue the call in English, for example. It’s short, sweet, and makes them feel included and valued. 
  • When someone is escalated or if they aren’t fluent in English at all, you’ll usually be quick to notice so you may not have to work as hard to figure it out. However, you’ll still want to be quick to route the call appropriately if you can’t field the Spanish-speaking calls yourself. 
  • You can always keep it short and simple: “Would you prefer to continue the call in English or Spanish?” No explanation, no disclaimer—just give them the option. It’s very matter-of-fact and comes off as just part of what you do. 

These are just a few different ways that you can go about finding out what language people prefer if you’re using live agents to answer the call. As more people demand options, you’ll need to offer the solutions to meet those demands. Right now, bilingual service is high on that list. 


What about automated translation tools?


Historically, automatic translation tools have gotten a bad reputation. Quite frankly, most of them available to the general public are pretty terrible. However, there are professional tools available to receptionists (and often used by virtual receptionist services around the world) that can help provide translation services with near-100% accuracy in real-time, even if the agents aren’t actually fluent in the language. 

You can allow the caller to choose their language in advance or you can determine it once you answer the call, and then enlist a tool like this to help you complete the translations. Of course, if you don’t have fluent agents to relay the information back to the caller, it could lead to miscommunications because your agents might miss inflections, mispronounce words, or run into other issues along the way. 

So yes, you can use automatic translation tools for something like this, but you’ll need to do your homework and choose them wisely. Otherwise, you could end up looking foolish, offending customers, or just not providing the help they need at the caliber of professionalism that they deserve. 

Of course, as with most things in small business, you’ll probably be better off enlisting the help of a staff of virtual receptionists who can field all of your calls, website chats, and other communications in English and Spanish, and do it all while you’re taking care of other parts of your business. 


Speaking of enlisting help, consider partnering with the team at Smith.ai 


If you want to make sure that your callers are getting the best service, the answer might be to let someone else do it. The virtual receptionists at Smith.ai are available for 24/7 support to answer calls, website chat, and all kinds of other customer needs in English and Spanish, no matter what you need. Plus, we’ll do it all and keep you in the loop every step of the way, ensuring that you never miss a beat even when you’re busy handling other business. 

We can also help with an array of other solutions related to admin tasks and customer service. Ask about our lead intake and scheduling, SMS text and Facebook message answering, and even our payment collection services, and more. We’ve got you covered, whatever you need, and we’ll help you customize a plan to manage it all seamlessly. 

To learn more, schedule a consultation to discuss what the virtual receptionists at Smith.ai can do to improve communications as the face of your brand, from answering after-hours calls to fielding live chats, and so much more. You can also reach us at hello@smith.ai or (650) 727-6484. 




Sean Lund-Brown

Sean Lund-Brown is a current Marketing Assistant for Smith.ai. A graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Sean graduated with a BA in Music and an individualized degree in Teaching Vocal Pedagogy.

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