Customer Experience and Translation Quality

Have you ever noticed that when you talk about local customer experience, but you use the word “translation quality,” your colleagues’ eyes start to glaze over? That’s because, for most people outside of our industry, the idea of translation quality sounds pretty trivial. Maybe it brings up memories of their high school French professor telling them they forgot an accent mark over a vowel.

They tend to think of it in those terms. To them, translation quality = Nerdy. Language-related. Surface-level. Not important.

Who can blame them? Everyone cares about local customer experience. Very few people really link it to translation quality the way localization teams do.

I’m calling us out for not being great communicators when we use terms like this with people who don’t have a localization background. As much as it pains me to admit it, “translation quality” really isn’t a great term to use with most people. It confuses folks and makes them think we’re talking about something other than what we really are.

And yet, how many conversations have you been in where you used this term over and over, wondering why the value didn’t sink in for the other person?

I’ll raise my hand. Guilty as charged!

Why “Translation Quality” Simply Doesn’t Resonate for Most People

As localization practitioners, we tend to think it’s obvious why translation quality should matter to any company. But we rarely take that extra step to truly bridge the gap in understanding.

To people outside our profession, it’s like your colleagues are focused on selling apples, and you’re spending time talking to them about which apple is the shiniest. Shine doesn’t matter as much as taste when you’re selling apples. The customer probably won’t even notice the shine but they will notice the taste. The value isn’t derived from merely the shine of the apple, so why do you keep bringing it up?

Try Talking about Customer Experience and Watch People Tune In

The more I’ve worked on localization with other stakeholders — especially colleagues in sales, marketing, and customer success — the more I’ve realized that what we’re really trying to convey when we say “translation quality” is “customer experience.

Consider these examples:

  • What we say: “We need to build in a review step, or the translation quality will suffer.”
  • What we should say: “We need to build in a review step, or the customer experience will suffer.”
  • What we say: “Machine translation alone won’t work for this scenario, because translation quality will be bad.”
  • What we should say: “Machine translation alone won’t work for this scenario, because the customer experience will be bad.”

The everyday examples are endless. It can be really hard to get people to understand why translation quality matters. But if you mention “non-English customer experience,” they immediately get it.

This is even more important when you’re working with new stakeholders who have limited experience with localization. They want to trust your expertise, but when you start talking about things that seem unimportant, you begin to lose their trust. People don’t trust what they can’t understand. And it isn’t that they can’t understand; they just don’t have time to learn localization industry insider terminology in a 30-minute meeting where they have more important goals in mind.

Keep Prioritizing Translation Quality, But Talk About Customer Experience Instead

Lately, I’ve been trying to correct my own bad habits when I speak with external stakeholders about translation quality the non-English customer experience. It has been hard for me to learn to do this, but it’s a skill all of us can eventually learn. After all, we work really hard to ensure that our customers in each locale see exactly the right terminology for their country and language.

It shouldn’t be a major stretch for us to adjust our vocabulary when we’re dealing with people who are not from the localization field. For many of us, these are the majority of people we work with every day! Surely we can do that.

We definitely don’t have to stop prioritizing translation quality in our daily work just to talk about it differently. To do that would de-prioritize the customer experience, and no one would allow that! We can use the term as much as we like with each other, because we know exactly what we mean by it.

I’m just saying that we’ll get a lot further if we don’t use this terminology, or worse yet, bore people with nerdy insider discussions of LQA models, ASTM F2575-06, ISO 9000, CAN CGSB 131.10 and EN 15038 (all right, fine, ISO 17100:2015). No one — and I mean no one — cares about that stuff except localization people.

My take here is similar to the reasons I tried to come up with more accessible language and ways of explaining our industry-defining terms (see “Letting Go of the GILT: Making Localization More Accessible“). We talk with people all the time about the importance of speaking the customer’s language. But how well do we actually practice what we preach? I think by making small tweaks to the terms we use, we can improve how we communicate with others on key topics like this.

In doing so, we can accomplish our localization goals a lot faster, be stronger partners to internal teams, and better facilitate international expansion at our companies. That’s why it matters to me, and why I hope it’s helpful to others who are trying to help their companies drive global growth.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly is an award-winning global marketing executive and cross-functional leader in B2B SaaS, with experience at both startups and large public companies. The author of three books, her latest is "Take Your Company Global" (Berrett-Koehler). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly is based in New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.


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