The Bilingual Call Center

By Sandip Sen

A different language is a different vision of life. – Federico Fellini

A call center functions as a link between a company and its customers. With many companies serving a customer base that speaks different languages, the ability for a call center to offer multiple languages reduces unnecessary language barriers between the two.

Clients of business process outsourcing (BPO) providers, especially in a nation as diverse as the United States, often seek providers with bilingual agents to reduce their expenses while reaching a broader customer base.

The importance of a bilingual center is determined as much by its location as the client’s need. Take the Spanish language, for example. Strategically placing call centers in areas with high Spanish-speaking populations, such as Texas, Arizona, or Florida, provides a ready labor pool of bilingual agents. Other markets, such as New York and Los Angeles, possess a rich diversity of languages, so the availability of multilingual agents increases significantly.


There are a few practical steps for recruiting bilingual agents. First, start the screening process at the first point of contact, which is the help wanted ad. Advertise in at least two newspapers (such as the local town newspaper and a larger paper with county readership) in areas with a high bilingual population. Compose the advertisement in the language required so you immediately test the reading ability of potential candidates.

Prescreen the respondents in English to test for English fluency and involve the candidate in a basic conversation to judge their comfort level with English. Next, conduct a second-round interview with an operations supervisor who speaks the second language. Have the supervisor check for fluency, accent, and pronunciation.

You may also introduce role-playing and a script. The supervisor asks the agent to read the script in the second language and, posing as a caller, asks the agent spontaneous questions to see how their fluency lasts in a high-pressure situation. (It is not uncommon for people to lapse into another language during a conversation.) 

A rigorous language skills test finishes the process, in which the agent faces questions of grammar and language strength. The definition of knowing a language can be loosely interpreted, and it is important to separate someone who speaks a few broken words from those who possess a good grasp of a language.

Determining an agent’s comfort level with both languages is important. Where English may be the agent’s second language, he or she may be uncomfortable with conducting a professional conversation in English. Again, role-playing and a script are your trusted advisors.


A second issue is availability. If a client engagement requires a specific dialect or accent, recruiters will need to go deep into the talent pool to find the right candidates, limiting their options. Geographical issues also emerge due to concentrations of bilingual resources in certain areas.

These areas may not necessarily be close to the call center, thus requiring a lengthy commute. These issues can be addressed by offering incentives such as pay raises with promotions, targeting bilingual agents from a particular geographical area, encouraging carpooling, and offering fuel discounts.

Going bilingual has numerous advantages. It reduces average call wait time, because the agents can address English-speaking callers when the demand for another language is low. Agent resources are increased during call spikes, and you can even assign agents to work on multiple campaigns involving different language requirements.

In comparison, having only monolingual agents for a client engagement that requires multiple languages means that you will need to hire more agents. Another option is to hire an interpreter, which is not only expensive and time-consuming but also outdated.

The Power of Bilingual

This brings us to the most important advantage of bilingual staffing, which is the end goal of all call centers—extremely high customer satisfaction. Having bilingual agents enables issues to be resolved within one call. Customers do not have to be transferred to another agent or call back to talk with someone else. This one-call-resolution saves the customer valuable time, reduces client costs, and increases customer satisfaction.

The power of language is all too often underrated. Having command of an additional language enables better communication with customers and increases the ability to understand their sensibilities, which leads to more culturally relevant solutions. It creates a sense of comfort and eases the customer’s mind while making the customer experience better.

Sandip Sen is president (Americas) and chief marketing officer of Aegis.

[From Connection Magazine May 2011]

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