The Opportunity Cost of Low-Quality Translation

Localization managers at companies that purchase translation services are often trained as follows: when it comes to translation, your top considerations are quality, speed, and cost. Pick two, you simply can’t have all three. That’s the common logic the industry uses today. And, the way the language services industry is set up actually means that this logic bears true most of the time.

However, this picture is incomplete, because it doesn’t include a key element of the equation that all localization leaders should care about: opportunity cost.

What happens, in practice, at companies that depend on translation being of a high quality in order to grow? Here are some of the most common scenarios:

Scenario A: No one ever finds out that the quality is poor.

This is far more common than you might think! In fact, I would say that this is actually the norm in the industry, especially for companies without localization teams in-house. Most companies simply don’t check translation quality, because in order to actually do that, they would have to hire people who speak the language natively. To do it at scale, they would need to hire native speakers with localization knowledge, and essentially build out a localization team.

In the early growth stages of most companies, localization is low on the radar, not a priority. Operating from finite budgets and financial constraints, most companies prioritize hiring go-to-market teams who speak these languages, for their sales, marketing, and customer service teams. The task of hiring people in each language they seek to support is hard enough, and that is usually the top focus. For most companies, localization is a secondary consideration, even though it has huge impact on the customer experience.

What’s the opportunity cost? Unfortunately, most customers aren’t going to bother to take the time to complain about a bad or confusing translation. Instead, they’ll either decide to just live with the inferior experience, or eventually leave the company in search of a competitor that offers a better one. If their feedback ever gets surfaced, unless there are very mature feedback loops, it will reach a dead end. The opportunity cost in this scenario is very high, because eventually, the company can end up with a poor reputation in the local market without even knowing it. Obviously, product features and functionality that outweigh the annoyance of confusing or bad translations, and the presence or absence of competitors has a huge bearing on how the customer feels overall about their experience. But in general, when companies “hope and pray” that their translation quality is sufficient, the opportunity cost is frequently and quite simply missed revenue, and lost market share in the target country.

Companies tend to be deceived in this regard, especially when they see their international business growing at a faster clip than their domestic business. They mistakenly assume that their company is hitting the mark in a given language, firing on all cylinders. How can anyone argue with the numbers? Performance data tends to override any concerns that might be raised along the way. What these companies don’t realize is how fast they could be growing instead in a target country, and how much better the customer experience they deliver could be. They cannot realize their true potential in a given market, because their expectations are often set at a bar that is too low to begin with.

Scenario B: Go-to-market teams in-region Take Action.

There are many companies that have go-to-market (GTM) teams who speak other languages. In such cases, these teams will sometimes realize that the customer experience in other languages is insufficient or inequitable compared to English, due to a lack of localization, due to poor translation quality, or both. The type of company that even has the ability to acknowledge this would be characterized by mature feedback loops between geographies and functions, strong hiring of in-region teams who speak the languages of the customer, and a culture of focusing on the customer experience.

In this scenario, the GTM teams would likely raise concerns to the localization team, assuming one exists internally. The localization team, in turn, would then relay the feedback to the localization vendors. Very slowly and gradually, the localization vendors might begin to improve the quality, although this process would be incredibly slow and resource-intensive.

What’s the opportunity cost? Most regional staff aren’t going to bother to take the time to complain about a bad or confusing translation, because they simply don’t have time. It diverts focus from their regular jobs. Intentionally having regional teams take on the burden of linguistic review has a major opportunity cost, especially if the folks doing this are working in sales, marketing, or customer success. Every minute a salesperson spends reviewing a translation, they’re not selling. Every hour a marketing person spends giving feedback to a vendor on a translation, they’re not generating leads for sales. And every minute a customer service or support team member spends translating or reviewing something in their language, they’re not focused on customers. The opportunity cost of having GTM teams worry about fixing translation quality is simply huge, and believe it or not, in many ways almost worse than Scenario A, because it takes these folks away from focusing on core business and customer value.

Scenario C: Localization Teams Reactively Fix Poor Translations.

When localization teams do exist, they rarely are able to prevent poor translations from happening, because the industry tends to operate with a focus on outsourcing. Freelance translators, no matter how great they may be, are not mind-readers. They can’t just wave a magic wand and figure out what a company’s tone of voice in another language should be by reading about the English tone of voice. They can’t look into a crystal ball to know what the preferred terminology is in your industry, and of your competitors, without doing intense research in another language that even your own company hasn’t yet done.

And besides, they’re not being paid for that. They’re only being paid to translate using whatever resources you give them to do a good job. Sadly, most companies blame the translators or the vendors, and don’t even think about actually giving the translators the resources they need to deliver high quality, let alone paying them for the time it takes to learn this information. Paying them in some other way, such as a retainer model instead of a per-word rate, is also not usually on the radar for most companies. It’s faster, easier, and cheaper to just go with the industry norms, paying per-word rates.

So, the best that most localization teams can do, especially when they are minimally staffed, is to try to recruit people who know the market (usually, leaning on regional GTM staff yet again) from within the company to try to assemble a style guide, a glossary, and so on. Then, they can at least reactively do clean-up work, making sure there are no major errors, resulting in a slightly better customer experience.

What’s the opportunity cost? The opportunity cost in this scenario is similar to the one above, except that the GTM teams are not assuming the burden, and can remain focused on growth activities in the market in question. Instead, the localization team assumes most of the burden. Indeed, depending on the staffing model and the company in question, the localization team might not even have the bandwidth or ability to prioritize quality review and training vendors in order to enable a high-quality customer experience. In this scenario, the localization team is constantly struggling just to keep pace with throughput and volume, and can’t usually divert their attention to quality initiatives, even if it’s in the best interest of the customer.

Scenario D: Localization Teams Proactively Enable High Quality

In this scenario, localization teams are properly staffed so that they are not scrambling to throw translated words across the finish line at any random quality level. Instead, they can actually enable quality for each language of importance within the company’s focus countries, aligned with GTM strategy. When this happens, the localization team has tight alignment with all major stakeholder groups companywide, but especially with the GTM teams they support.

In such cases, the localization team might even live organizationally within the Sales, Marketing, Customer Success, or Revenue Operations teams, instead of Product / Engineering organization (which is the most common org structure in software companies, traditionally). A tight alignment between Localization and GTM teams serves to heighten awareness across all of these teams that they’ll be making clear and intentional choices about how to support customers in a given market as they grow their presence there.

What’s the opportunity cost? This scenario might sound utopian, but it too has an opportunity cost. Each localization team member you hire represents a person you are not hiring to focus on basic GTM needs in order to grow the company’s presence in a given market. In other words, instead of hiring a few localization people to ensure the team can focus more on delivering a solid customer experience, the company could instead hire three more salespeople. Short-change localization staffing? That might actually be an intentional choice in a given year as part of annual planning in order to bolster a team like marketing or sales. However, the GTM teams will have to align and make that choice together, knowing that either more review burden will fall to their teams (Scenarios B and C), or the customer experience will simply be ignored (Scenario A).

Low-Quality Translation Doesn’t Have to Be Part of Your Company’s Story

The scenarios outlined above often manifest as “phases” throughout a company’s global growth journey. As companies get bigger, gain experience, have more resources and become more “mature,” the responsibility of ensuring quality to customers within a given in-language experience tends to fall more and more to the localization team. However, localization teams are often disconnected from other parts of the company and disempowered, making it hard for them to influence other teams. In some cases, they are decentralized, which makes it even harder.

Still, if you’re at a company that is beginning your international expansion journey, you do not have to accept low-quality translation as a necessary stage in your journey.

Give each market the attention it deserves.

In my experience, low-quality translation becomes inevitable at many companies for one underlying reason – they bite off more than they can chew when it comes to international expansion, and thus, with localization. Focusing on too many countries and languages at once makes it hard to have a crystal clear vision of the experience you seek to create for your customers in any and every market. It also puts localization teams into a mode in which they can never catch up and serve the needs of a market proactively. So why do so many companies do this?

I would chalk this common phenomenon up to a couple of things. There are the ethnocentric views and “conquer-the-world” mentality that pervade Western societies. This means that many companies simply have no idea what they are getting into when they start to expand internationally, because they assume it will be easy to replicate their success in their home market by doing whatever they did before, without needing to adapt much at all.

But we also can’t let the language services industry escape blame here. There is an army of localization vendors that feeds into these notions, making blanket promises of “we’ll help you go global.” Having led not just localization, but international strategy and expansion in the past, I can say that most localization vendors are naive in thinking and marketing this way. They don’t even offer 5% of the full suite of strategic or technical solutions that companies actually need to go global.

Language service providers often think they are the primary solution for their customers’ international expansion, when really they are just a tiny piece of the puzzle. Here’s a partial list of what the typical language service provider does not offer, but that is absolutely necessary for international expansion: currency and payment technology, local recruiting services for GTM talent in each language and country, global-ready product design and development services, strategic reseller relationships in each country, facilities planning, PEO and staffing services, entity creation, local legal counsel, local taxation and accounting, local IT support, local training services… and so much more. These things often matter even if your company only expands into markets that speak the same language!

Bottom line, there is no “one-stop-shop” that makes it even remotely easy for companies to expand into other countries. Companies that seek international growth require not only internal expertise, but an ecosystem of external partners and technology to support all the different functions of their entire company, and this isn’t easy by any stretch.

There are techniques and processes that localization teams can use, of course, to try and mitigate the risks to the customer experience in a given language. But the best of all is when teams come together and align around a clear GTM strategy, and can make very clear choices in support of that strategy to bolster the customer experience in all languages they offer. That is the very best way to minimize opportunity cost full circle, and ensure a high-quality experience for customers in another language, which is really all we’re saying when we talk about avoiding “low-quality translation” in the first place.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly works remotely from Donegal, Ireland, by way of New England, Ecuador, and rural Illinois where she grew up.

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