Voice of the Customer! Paula Shannon shares her insights on the future of the translation industry. And joins the TAUS Community!
Merriam-Webster defines “spokesperson” as someone who speaks as the representative of others often in a professional capacity. And, the first use of it dates back to 1537. It has been longways since the first use of it, but it has never been more relevant for TAUS than now. Meet the TAUS Spokesperson; Paula Shannon, one of the most respected and experienced members of the global translation community. She told us all about her career, but above all about the major shift in communication towards an understanding of customer trust. Where spoken language is key!
TAUS: Give us a brief introduction to your own language industry story before we get down to what happens next!
Paula: After studying modern languages and linguistics in Canada, I began to a journey that lead me to the world of language! Initially I worked in a multilingual advertising agency, then I took a job with the Dutch government as a research analyst in their foreign trade development office. I was hired by Berlitz as a management trainee, and finally became a language industry professional in the mid-1980s. I worked at Alpnet (probably largely forgotten now, but a one-time translation technology pioneer) as it evolved from a $20M to a $60M LSP and translation technology company. In 1999, I finally moved to Lionbridge where I worked in a series of different leadership roles for 18 years. I believe most people in the industry see me as a sales and client-facing person, but in fact I also have a deep operational background.
In the spring of 2017, following the successful ‘go-private’ transaction at Lionbridge, I decided to step back and pay more attention to my health and family. While I continue to remain connected to Lionbridge and support them, I’m enjoying my new perspective and relish the time I have for outside pursuits such as volunteering, sports, cooking, and learning. After years contorted on planes, I am happiest to see that my yoga practice has gone to new levels!
TAUS: Our core question: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned after your wide-ranging career in the industry?
Paula: It’s that word “industry!” I learned that by thinking of ourselves narrowly in terms of an industry, we have risked clinging to an outdated “command line” view of what we do. Yet today we all live in an Alexa world of immediate interaction.
We should not conceive of our industry as a production-centric organization driven by an underlying technology vision. What we offer is translation services. Economically speaking, this means that translation sits in the quaternary sector, part of the same world as consulting, not in the primary sector of industrial production.
If we spend too much time myopically organizing our activities around the “command line” view of what we do, we run the risk of ignoring that in the end it’s the consumer who calls the shots. The end-users of content should be our constant concern, not simply the factual accuracy of the content, as it was back in the days when computer manuals were our core business and linguists determined the quality standards. Today, brand is king. Brand communication seeks to emotionally connect your target prospects with your product and or service, to motivate the buyer to buy, to confirm your credibility and to create user loyalty.
Much of the content we translate is about convincing and persuading consumers, so it will tend to be far less about perfect punctuation and far more about meaningful engagement and emotive coloring. Yet for too long now the industry has been inwardly focused on its obsession with arbitrary quality and how to achieve it technically or organizationally. We focus on how close a translation is to human quality instead of the quality of humans being close.
I believe that most of the communication involved in the content we translate is about trust. We must not fall into the trap of forgetting that the linear model of the product to customer journey has been replaced by an understanding of that journey as a circular process, involving different “trigger” moments when a customer might pay more attention and hence buy.
2017 research suggests that there is much less brand loyalty than people thought, and every purchase is up for grabs. 58% of consumers switch brands with each purchase, 70% of brand choices come from the initial moment of contact. This makes trust a major factor in the journey. So how do businesses – and our industry - engage with consumer trust?
In my view nothing builds trust more than language.
What is more personal than the tongue we speak and use to understand others? The value of quality in translation, therefore, is not about how many typos there are per thousand words, but what the impact of the content we translate has on the customer growth indicator – the metric that predicts the link between the “trigger” moment and a brand’s growth. After all, authentic reviews on a consumer site are now more important for the brand than the text the company pumps out! This is what our business is all about – ensuring trust through language. And in future that will largely mean spoken language, not just text…
In the early days of mass media, everyone thought that in large nations regional accents would disappear and we would move to a single, more generic “dialect” of a language. But today, for some products and services, there’s a gradual shift back from the generic to the regional and local, largely because voice – that spoken language now active via our devices – is so attuned to the emotive, personal dimension of communication. And marketers of all kinds are aware of this. So spoken language with all its wealth of local empathy and meaning will play a constantly greater role for the future consumer, because these local or regional ways of speaking will convey more trust. Trust is exuded by the accent and speaking style of the language you speak.
TAUS: What does this shift mean for language services providers?
Paula: It is time for translators – and the industry as a whole - to stop worrying so obsessively about how to control and measure output quality and start paying much more attention to the kind of local reception and impact that content will have on behavior, understanding and trust.
Local spoken accents carry highly-charged emotive content that can create trust for brands. I believe there is a strong link to be made there for an alert translation industry. This will in turn lead to new types of jobs for translators. Instead of focusing as we have done on the internal aspects of our industry, largely distanced from the business dynamic they serve, I believe people will be able to work more directly within the orbit of marketing. We as an industry are far better able to assess the content around a product locally and use data from the street to enrich local applications. Instead of focusing only on how close a given translation is to a given quality measure, this means that we shall be working in non-traditional roles and jobs – for example, as brand ambassadors and product testers – in opening up new opportunities for brands and for people.
The most important change will be, as I’ve tried to suggest, the shift to speech as the natural medium of content - speech on demand. The sourcing of speech samples will be important and ultimately so will speech to speech translation. And this in turn will challenge the breadth of a supplier’s resources and networks.
I am convinced that technology investments in machine learning will begin to make sense of regionalized spoken variants of a language by harnessing new kinds of big data, for example from speech analytics firms or local media of all types. I believe we are moving towards a translation business that will deliver to the most exacting standard of all - conversational capability.
TAUS: How do you see this speech wave evolving within the industry?
Paula: I would say: Open your eyes now, otherwise it will be too late!
Bill Gates is quotes as saying, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.“ The shift to spoken communication is already happening – just think how suddenly the translation volume in computer manuals disappeared when the iPad arrived in 2010 with no text and an intuitive UI. I would reckon there will be a five or maximally ten-year window for MLVs and LSPs to make this shift from the “command line” conception of translation to the new world of Alexa talk.
Disruption typically happens first in an under-served part of the market, and then gradually hollows out the core. But most people won’t experience this shift to speech as a disruption. Rather than starting from a product view and then working outwards, I believe this shift will be driven by specific areas inside the market of consumer demand and gradually work back into the way brands communicate in general.
The key lesson is this: Consumers will define this evolution, not suppliers. It will start at the point where trust matters and where the future of a brand is at stake. These indicators will tell marketers that we will have to change to adapt such shifts in behavior.
Obviously traditional language services around factual content will continue and there remain many areas where accuracy, technology, cost and speed are the only concerns, but we must begin to think in terms of providing translators with non-standard roles, working as the preferred local agent, who will in fact be far more valuable than a large global supplier for that specific job.
TAUS: And what will be your next job?
Paula: I’m looking to be involved in a less commercial role that fosters my enduring passion for the world and work of language. So, I shall be collaborating with TAUS as a host or spokesperson in a series of webcasts, helping the industry pursue its internal conversation about its future, and also observing closely how my intuitions about the rise of content personalization through speech will impact all of our practices. And I’m really looking forward to it!