How to handle multilingual calls: In-house agents vs. Phone Interpretation

In a recent survey, over 40% of UK contact centre managers indicated that their centre supports more than one language. Those looking to implement multilingual telephonic support solutions have three options:

  1. Hire agents with language skills, or use language skills of existing employees
  2. Outsource multilingual calls to a BPO
  3. Partner with a telephone interpretation provider

Let’s compare two of the three multilingual customer service options and highlight what to consider when making a choice.

In-house agents

With over 4.2 million UK residents speaking a primary language other than English, there is no shortage of employees speaking the languages of the world. In a recent study by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) analyzing multilingual support programs of over 400 contact centres, participants overwhelmingly stated a preference for handling non-English calls with bilingual in-house agents – as long as costs were not factored in.

Preference non-english support modality


Having multilingual employees on the team allows organizations to train them in the same processes and protocols as English-only speakers and become steeped in the company culture. Through multi-skilling, the multilingual workforce can also be managed better, reducing some of the potential downtime, as queues for other languages might be less busy.

Even so, it’s questionable whether an organization has sufficient volume to justify the costs of staffing internal agents to handle language support. In the ICMI study, contact centre managers were asked how many non-English calls they served- 80% handled less than 1,000 calls per month.

Number of non-English calls per month


Assuming that the average centre agent can handle 1,000 calls per month, it would take significant multi-skilling to make the case for having sufficient bilingual staff on duty to ensure coverage during peak-time, breaks, vacation, etc. It is also worth noting that additional personnel would be needed for every language a centre supports – a centre might have sufficient volume to support French, but be unable to make the model work for German or Spanish.

This analysis doesn’t factor in elements required to provide stellar service in other languages, such as:

  • Hiring costs (if new employees with language skills need to be hired).
  • Language proficiency assessments (to ensure agents are truly proficient).
  • In-language training materials (use of proper terminology)
  • Multi-skilled workforce management: setting up queues, IVR, scheduling, forecasting, schedule adherence to ensure defined service levels.
  • Quality assurance: setting up systems to check the quality of non-English calls.



Factoring in these costs, it might take significantly more than a 1,000 calls per month (in one particular language) to make using bilingual staff cost-effective. This leads many organizations to the conclusion that providing multilingual support can’t be done cost-effectively, so they elect not to, missing the chance to provide stellar service to all customers. Fortunately, there is another option.

Telephone interpretation

Using a telephone interpretation provider is unfamiliar to most organizations outside the United States, but it’s used with great success by the majority of US Fortune 500 companies. Phone interpretation is a 3-way call between an English speaking agent, the non-English speaking customer and a human translator that interprets everything that is being said.

This solution is cost-efficient, in particular for small volumes, because organizations pay only a fee per-minute without any up-front or fixed costs. This allows them to provide phone support for any markets where they might have sales without having to internally staff interpreters for all the languages spoken there. Third-party Interpreters also don’t need to be trained on an organization’s particular protocols and processes, since their role is simply to repeat everything that is being said by the English-speaking agent of the company. Interpreters are also skilled in terminology across a variety of industries.

In the US, the majority of large banks, insurance providers, and telecommunication firms use telephone interpretation, either in addition to multilingual agents or, in some cases, as their exclusive means of multilingual customer support. For someone who has never experienced an interpretation call, adding a third party to a call might seem a cumbersome way to communicate. In reality, however, 80% of contact centers that use both in-language agents and phone interpreters told ICMI that customers report equal or higher customer satisfaction for telephone interpretation calls, when compared to calls where an interpreter was not needed.

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