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How to Deal with a Customer's Language Barrier

When dealing with a business customer who doesn't speak English (or doesn't know much of the language), you can overcome that customer language barrier in a number of ways:

  • Show some emotion. Most emotions, such as excitement, joy, fear, frustration, and anger, are universal. Just remember that some cultures are more or less restrained in their expressions, so stay within your customers’ comfort zone. Follow the customer’s lead.

  • Slow down, but don’t shout. Even if a customer understands English, different people have different levels of fluency. You may be speaking or introducing new concepts so fast that everything becomes a blur to them. Slow down, but avoid cranking up the volume. Non-English-speaking customers who don’t comprehend your words probably aren’t hearing impaired.

  • Draw a picture to communicate an idea. Some people prefer to see things, as opposed to hearing about them, so even the most rudimentary drawing can be much more helpful than trying to repeat your words over and over. Also, finding a picture from a magazine or showing a customer a chart or graph can speak much more clearly than words.

  • Show without so much tell. Some people prefer to experience a product for themselves. If possible, let the person try out the product or service.

  • Ask for help. If others are around who speak your customer’s language, don’t be shy about asking for their assistance. People who are bilingual are often willing to translate for those who aren’t, whether you’re in a store, office, airport, hotel, or some other location. If you have a bilingual employee, all the better.

  • Double-check your customer’s understanding. If you’re unsure whether your client has understood your message, try to confirm meanings by asking the question a different way, or having him or her explain information back to you.

  • Be patient. The key to overcoming any language barrier is to exercise patience. It’s not your or the customer’s fault that you can’t speak each other’s language.

  • Maintain your sense of humor. Overcoming language barriers can be frustrating for you, as well as for your customer. A smile can help break the tension and make communicating easier.

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