Creating a Successful Spanish Speech System

Overcoming Common Obstacles to Deploying Effective Spanish Language Speech Systems

According to Census Bureau data from 2003, Spanish speakers account for more than 10 percent of U.S. residents[1]. While some of these people are bilingual, many prefer to use Spanish when conducting transactions over the phone with banks, airlines, utility companies, cable providers, and other businesses.

Interestingly enough, it seems that Spanish-only systems are having lower automation rates than English-only systems. 


Should a speech system have the same functionality for both English and Spanish?

Many companies address the need for a Spanish speech system by simply creating a Spanish version of the automated system they use for English speakers.  This approach often leads to disappointing results because it assumes that both caller populations have the same needs. Instead of obtaining comparable automation rates, companies may observe a significant difference in the percentage of people that are able to complete their transactions using the automated system in each language (e.g. up to 40 percent).

Functionality is often the main culprit. A clear example of this would be systems that do not address translation-related questions. Many companies often send bills, monthly statements and marketing communications to all their customers in English. A large number of their Spanish-speaking customers may call the company to ask about what they think is a cancellation or late payment notice, but which in reality may simply be a marketing pamphlet offering a new feature. For many companies, translation-related questions represent a significant percentage of the total Spanish call volume.

It is crucial to understand the real needs of the Spanish callers, avoid making assumptions based on the English speech system, and most importantly, adjust expectations regarding what it will mean for the Spanish speech system to be successful. In our example, the measure for successful calls could exclude calls that are about translation. Another possibility would be to include an option in the main menu to address translation-related calls explicitly, even if it is by simply routing those calls to an agent. This approach would make it easier to properly measure how successful the speech system is in automating transactions for the rest of the calls.


How do callers reach the Spanish speech system?

Spanish speech systems usually have less visibility than their English language counterparts.  It is surprising that, after spending so much time and money developing a speech system for a significant percentage of its caller population — typically close to 10 percent— a company could let the system fail by not advertising that it exists or how it can be reached.  The fact is, however, that many businesses simply do not advertise their Spanish speech systems, and if they do, they often send their communications in English. The phone numbers to access the Spanish systems do not even appear on corporate Web sites, bills, notifications, or the back of credit cards. One-time communications are usually ineffective for spreading news about the Spanish speech system, leaving new customers or potential late adopters of the system in the dark. Perhaps even more surprising than insufficient advertising is the fact that the company's own employees are often unaware that the Spanish speech system exists. 

While some companies provide a dedicated number for accessing their Spanish speech systems, others provide access to it through their English-language systems. However, many bilingual systems require too much guesswork, time and patience on the part of the Spanish callers, requiring that they listen to several menus and even time out before they get to the Spanish section. Still other systems awkwardly present a language-selection option at the end of a lengthy recorded advertisement.

Providing easy access to the Spanish speech system requires a two-pronged effort. Both callers and agents need to know that the Spanish system exists and they need to be able to find it. If there is a dedicated telephone number for each language, the company should use all possible channels, such as monthly statements, enrollment material and the Web, to inform their customers what these telephone numbers are. Even if the speech systems for both languages are accessed through the same number, it should be made clear to potential callers that they will still be able to get service in their own language. When they call in, it should be easy and painless for them to select the language they prefer to use.


Once callers reach the Spanish system, can they use it? And is the content relevant to them?

A poor translation, even of a single, but critical prompt, can render a speech system unusable. More importantly, many companies fail to recognize the pitfalls of simply "translating" a speech system.  While this approach may appear to be the most straightforward and cost-effective, there are localization issues, which require different business strategies and special call-flow considerations.

By identifying and understanding language and culture-specific requirements at the beginning of a speech project, one eliminates the risk of deploying a speech system that alienates Spanish-speaking callers or fails to meet key financial and caller adoption goals.  In addition to proper translation, clever usage of prompts and a carefully planned call-flow design that considers localization issues can allow a single code-base system to support multiple languages successfully.

Even if the functionality of the bilingual system is appropriate for both languages and the translation has been done correctly, it is possible to have content, like cross-sells, that may not be relevant to the Spanish speakers. For example, many American companies offer a variety of services over the Internet.  However, few companies offer their online services in both English and Spanish. As a result, initiatives designed to encourage online services often alienate Spanish-speaking customers.  Directing these customers to a Web site that they cannot understand or use indicates to the caller that the company does not understand or care about the needs of its Hispanic customers. It can result in lengthy call-backs to live agents from frustrated Spanish-speaking customers or loss of those customers to competitors who provide more culturally-sensitive customer service.

Companies should consider their Spanish-speaking audience when advertising alternate channels in their telephone systems, only offering services that apply to the callers. Companies may also opt to take a broader perspective and invest in all touch points, thus providing opportunities for successful interactions in both languages. In this way, organizations define a path for achieving higher caller satisfaction, improved operational efficiency, and stronger branding.


Does the transfer strategy make sense for Spanish-speaking callers? Or does it lead them to a dead-end?

Callers usually gauge their satisfaction according to their overall experience—from the moment they place the call until the time their problem is solved.  Imagine for a moment that you are using an English speech system while you are in China. Upon choosing one of the English menu options, you hear a voice uttering something in Chinese followed by some music. When you are transferred, you are surprised to find that the representative speaks Chinese only!

This scenario may sound farfetched to English-speaking customers, but it is an all-too-familiar experience for Spanish-speaking callers in the United States.  Many Spanish systems are not designed to take into consideration where callers will end up once they are transferred.  In fact, many of these callers are sent to a different English-only automated system or to a live representative who does not speak Spanish. Even if the Spanish speech system worked well, callers are left frustrated by their inability to complete the transaction with a live agent or another automated system.

It is critical that the speech system be designed to properly handle all transfer points.  Even if a company does not have the resources to offer a complete experience for Spanish-speaking callers, the speech system could give callers the hours of operation of the Spanish queue, inform them of the availability of English-speaking representatives, and allow them to choose the path they prefer.

To provide a truly satisfying caller experience, the team designing the speech system has to carefully consider the various exit points and determine the best way to transition callers from one place to the other.  This step is just as important as building the right functionality into the system itself. 


Overcoming the obstacles and reaching success.

When planning the creation of a speech system for Spanish-speaking callers, it is important to consider the following questions:


  • Is the functionality of the Spanish speech system based on a careful analysis of the real needs of the Spanish-speaking customers, or is it merely following the design of the English system?
  • If the Spanish design mirrors that of the English system, but the needs of the callers are different, have the success metrics for each language been adjusted to reflect this disparity?


  • Is there an effective way for existing Spanish-speaking customers to know that there is a Spanish speech system? How will new customers find out about it? 
  • Once callers know that the Spanish system exists, do they know what telephone number they need to call to access it? 
  • Do call center agents know how to direct callers to the Spanish speech system?
  • If the English and Spanish systems share the same phone number, will callers be able to easily indicate which language they prefer to use?

Translation and Localization

  • Is the translation accurate?
  • Are the validation strategies and other questions appropriate for Hispanic callers? 
  • Will Spanish-speaking callers be able to provide the information needed to complete their transactions?
  • Are the cross-sells and the information that the system presents relevant to this caller population?

Transfer Strategy

  • Once Spanish-speaking callers interact with the system, where will they be transferred?
  • Will they be able to continue the call in Spanish, whether it is with an agent or another automated system?
  • If they have to continue in English, will callers be informed beforehand? Will they have a choice? Or will they be forced to deal with their problem in a language they cannot speak?

Taking into consideration all of these factors is necessary to create a highly effective Spanish speech system that delights callers, strengthens the company's brand, and results in higher automation rates.

José Elizondo is manager for multilingual VUI design for North American Professional Services at Nuance. He can be reached at jose.elizondo@nuance.com.

Ilana Rozanes is a user interface design leader at Nuance. She can be reached at ilana.rozanes@nuance.com.



[1] 2003 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

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