Breaking the language barrier in service industry - another lesson from China

Just like millions of people in the world, I watched the opening of the Shanghai World Expo 2010 on TV. The event was attended by several world leaders and dignitaries. It was a great show with spectacular fireworks. This year’s World Expo gives opportunity to 189 countries to showcase in their national pavilions several aspects of their countries including art, design, technology, architecture, culture, international trade and tourism.

Just like millions of people in the world, I watched the opening of the Shanghai World Expo 2010 on TV. The event was attended by several world leaders and dignitaries. It was a great show with spectacular fireworks. This year’s World Expo gives opportunity to 189 countries to showcase in their national pavilions several aspects of their countries including art, design, technology, architecture, culture, international trade and tourism.

As this mega event happens every two years in a new country, we decided while we were in China in May to go and visit it. We booked a flight directly from our hotel in Ghandzoug from a receptionist who could not speak English.

We were amazed at the effort she made to ensure our booking as we also could not speak the Cantonese language. She used a translation software on her computer and all we had to do was to type in English our request and this was translated in her language.

When we boarded our domestic flight communication was of course made in Mandarin but the air hostess came directly to us and said in English that if we needed anything, we could call her as she was the only one who spoke English on the flight.

Even though language might seem a barrier in China, we found all these alternatives solutions as great means of communication to foreigners. Comparing this to what we usually see in our countries there are probably a couple of things we could learn.

In Rwanda, many times we often blame the poor customer service to the language barrier. Yes, the issue of the language is so serious that it needs to be tackled very seriously both in the private and public institutions.

In a Restaurant in Kigali, when we told the waiter that we couldn’t speak Kinyarwanda, he simply disappeared as if he was going to call someone else who could speak either French or English. But we waited for 20 minutes and this waiter never showed up again. Angry, we decided to leave but on our way, we saw him standing at the counter. 

The language was probably a barrier for him and he never tried to find an alternative solution to understand our request.

I have also been to meetings where people speak Kinyarwanda all throughout even when they know foreigners are part of the audience. In most cases, there isn’t even a slightest courtesy in translating some of the main points of the meeting.

In today’s economic environment where Rwanda is opened to the world, your columnist thinks that urgent efforts should be done on the language issue. People in the service sectors should try to understand at least just some few words in English.

The customer is not expecting them to be perfectly fluent. In China for instance, I realized that almost in every shop, there was always at least one person who could try some sorts of English.

Communication is definitely key to a good service delivery. If a sales person is unable to understand the request of the customer, how can he/ she provide good service? If you are a business owner or a manager, please put at your front desk people who can have basic knowledge of English.

Still as a manager, in case you have contact people who find it difficult to communicate with customers in foreign languages, please translate the following tricks in Kinyarwanda for them:

1. Be patient  
It is not the fault of the customer or yours not to understand each other’s language. Don’t be frustrated. Be calm. Patience will help you figure out the request of the customer.

2. Look pleasant  
Do not be blocked. Do not run or shy away. Rather Smile! Let your face and your body language send the message that, despite the communication barrier, you want to help.

3. Use visuals and be creative 
A picture is indeed worth 1000 words. In a restaurant in China, the waiter had to draw a fish for us to understand. So use pencil and paper, maps, calculators - any prop that might help facilitate communication. Use signs, voice, hands and your whole body language to send out messages.

4. Involve other people  
Don’t just stand there and say you do not understand. Call someone else who can help!
Throughout my entire stay in China, there were, of course negatives experiences as well. By deciding to share only the positives ones throughout these last four weeks, your columnist sincerely hopes that we can all draw lessons from what has probably been part of the secrets behind China’s development today

sidossou@theservicemag.com

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