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Bridging the language divide

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As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Aug 26, 2020

The United States is not a homogenous place. A nation of immigrants, a melting pot—characterizations so trite at this point that it’s easy to take for granted the truth they convey. But those of us involved in the customer care side of electricity do ourselves and our clients a great disservice when we fail to recognize our country’s cultural diversity. 

Many, although not all, utilities serve regions that boast significant forign born populations. According to Wikipedia, “the United States has a larger immigrant population than any other country, with 47 million immigrants as of 2015. This represents 19.1% of the 244 million international migrants worldwide, and 14.4% of the U.S. population.” Immigrants make up even larger parts of the population in many urban areas. In New York City, for example, 3.1 million of the city’s 8.4 million inhabitants are immigrants. 

So what? Afterall, Chileans and native-born Americans flip light switches and charge their cell phones the same way, right? While it’s true there’s probably little difference in the ways disparate ethnic groups consume electricity, the ways they interact with the utility can be profoundly distinct. I’m talking about language. Many immigrants come to the U.S. already speaking English, and a great many more learn it while they’re here. But many don’t. In my home of El Paso, Texas, for instance, the city’s demographics (over 80% Latino) and linguistic landscape provide little incentive for older immigrants to go through the pains of learning English. And I can’t imagine El Paso is unique in that regard. 

Whether a customer needs to report a black out, pay a bill, or just wants to check out a new solar program, they’ll have to communicate with the utility. That’s a mighty hard task if the utility’s communications system is written/recorded in a language other than that of the customer. Maybe the customer will use google translate or their grandkid to figure it out, but they might also say “to heck with it”—in their native tongue, obviously. Beyond immediately missing out on a program participant, or important intel on your grid’s health, you’ve also lost the opportunity to build an emotional bond and lasting rapport with that client. 

It may seem like I’m setting up a straw man here, but a quick search through some utility websites provided discouraging results. I could not find Tagalog resources on Hawaii Electric’s website. As far as I could tell, Seattle’s public utility page does not offer Manderine translations. Xcel Minnesota didn’t seem to have a Somali variant website. And even in El Paso, where Spanish is the most spoken language at home, I could not find a Spanish website or translations. I may have just missed some of them, but that’s indicative of a problem as well. 

Of course it doesn’t make sense to pump out websites and email translations for every different language spoken in your region. That would be nice, but opportunity cost is the name of the game in any business. That being said, if there is a language other than English that’s spoken by a sizable portion of your customer base, I’m confident a cost benefit analysis would come up in favor of creating resources in that language. Afterall, translating a website is not very difficult or expensive.


Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Aug 26, 2020

Your thoughts coud lead to a multilingual country such as all African countries.

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