Language strategies needn’t be double Dutch

Posted on 6 Dec 2011 by The Manufacturer

Sophie Howe, director of Cometec solutions, explains the importance of language strategies to manufacturing growth prospects.

Sophie Howe, director, Comtec Translations

The motivation

In a recent blog for TM Sophie Howe issued a call to arms for UK manufacturers not to overlook language strategies as government urges small and medium sized companies to be more outward looking in their search for growth.

Explaining why this is important Ms Howe reels off a striking list of statistics showing how companies attempting to leverage export growth which invest in well structured language strategies consistently outperform less thoughtful competitors.

Evidence from the British Chambers of Commerce suggests that a proactive language strategy, leveraging the kind of translation and interpretation services Comtec Translations can offer, generally results in around 45% more sales than those that take a more reactive approach – leaving their websites and marketing collateral in the company’s native language. Not only this, but customers are also likely to pay more for a product sold to them in their own language.

Ms Howe admits that the practicalities of following a pro-active language strategy can be a hard sell for Comtec Translations, “Not every customer immediately perceives the need,” she says, though the logic behind the creation of ‘localised’ micro-sites for foreign markets is clear. Howe explains: “If you leave your site in English then customers in other countries may stumble across it, but it is a very reactive way of selling. If you have a micro-site, optimised with translated metadata and keywords you will push yourself out to your customers.”

And this insinuation into foreign markets goes beyond simply translating the same text as would be presented to a UK audience says Howe. “It’s not just about translation. It’s about localisation,” she states. “It is possible to present your site so that it looks as though it was written and developed in and for that market, though whether or not you want to do this will depend on your strategy.”

This return’s Howe to the crux of the matter, this being that the majority of UK companies have no strategy at all in place for overseas expansion.

Out of 4.5 million UK SMEs, for example, only 75,000 are currently active in export markets despite a strong government push behind the expansion of exports for accelerated economic recovery throughout 2011.

Outside government too, the potential of rapid-growth markets to inject dynamism back into the UK economy has been tracked by trade bodies and advisory groups. Most recently the CBI released a report titled Winning overseas, produced in partnership with financial services firm Ernst & Young. The report estimates that £20 billion could be leveraged for UK recovery if small, and particularly medium sized firms were to increase activities in key foreign markets. According to Ernst & Young these markets not only include BRIC nations but also a host of other high potential economies including: Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey.

Howe admits that the challenge is a large one, and that many SME firms suffer from the misconception that exports are only for large companies as well as a number of other concerns. “It is common that people think they must take their domestic market to its limits before considering exports,” says Howe. “And then there are concerns about the cost of setting up offices abroad and of employing a foreign workforce. Finally, the language barrier concern is also very real.”

Howe does not deny that these concerns are legitimate, but she urges companies to seek out the assistance of the UKTI, an organisation Comtec works with in collaboration. “It is a lot of hard work to convince companies to even think about overseas markets, but they must realise that the UKTI is there to help them.”

Once companies have opened there minds to international competition and formed a rational plan for the markets it wants to target Howe says it is ready to start developing its language strategy. “First companies need to look in-house at the skills they might have for optimising business in their chosen markets, then they need to consider their options for addressing attendant communications issues.”

In addition to creating micro-sites which translate only the necessary information from a company’s main site – avoiding unnecessary investment in translating an entire site  for an insecure prospect – Comtec find there are often requests for telephone interpretators and the creation of standardised templates and forms for dealing with enquiries arising from foreign customers.

Where to start?

This last point is a key challenge. Research shows that out of 28 european nations the UK ranks bottom for language skills and so most companies are lucky if they find themselves with a smattering of GCSE level foreign language speakers. Such capability is not sufficient for dealing with potentially lucrative business enquiries, but the cost of hiring additional skilled staff will be daunting to many – especially at a stage when a new market is yet to show its true colours for revenue generation.

Graph ranking UK language skills against 27 other European countries

Reassuringly, Howe says there are ways companies can bring language expertise in house without incurring the cost of additional staff before the market is secure. An example which can assist companies with European export markets is the Leonardo scheme which places foreign graduates in UK firms for a work experience period. “This way companies can benefit from the insight and skills of a native speaker from their target market and as revenues increase they can consider whether to offer employment to the Leonardo trainee or to recruit the language capability from elsewhere,” says Howe.

While acknowledging the need for businesses to control their costs in what might generously be described as challenging times, Howe says it is crucial companies do not try and deal with language strategy “on the cheap”. Howe comments, “It is not unusual for a manger to remember a friend who studied Spanish or French at University and assume that they will do a good job of translating business material. Such an approach can be disastrous. We only use native speakers to translate content – so they are always returning content to their mother tongue. In addition they will always have some specialist knowledge of the sector. For example – when we were translating for our largest customer, Jaguar Land Rover, our staff all understood and had worked in the automotive sector for some years.”

So just what does it cost to have this kind of attention to detail given to website translation? Howe is reluctant to talk numbers simply because each scenario is so different – the language chosen can cause the cost to vary, as well as the amount of content. For a microsite of around 1000 words however, Howe gives a ballpark figure of £500. The most common language Comtec is asked to work with are still largely European – but Howe says there has been a slight rise in the demand for mandarin , Spanish and Portuguese, “though there has probably not been such an increase in demand for these languages as there should have been given the opportunities,” she adds.

Focusing on who might benefit most from the kind of services Comtec has to offer, Howe says that automotive has traditionally been a strong sector for them, but that niche manufacturers are likely to be prime customers on years to come, “for manufacturers offering specialist products and expertise that cannot be found elsewhere a sensitive language strategy will be part and parcel to their USP abroad,” says Howe. “We will have to work hard to ensure we keep up to speed with employing translators with the right industry experience to support such companies.”

For more information on Comtec’s offerings go to

To find out more about what export markets might be right for you go to

For more TM coverage of the opportunities and challenges for the UK in boosting manufacturing exports see the January issue of the magazine.