Friday, 21 September 2012

A little language is good for business

It is a common misconception that to be any good at a language you have to be fluent.  But a little language can definitely go a long way, especially in business.  In this guest post, Jane Shuttleworth describes her experiences.

People often think that if you want to do business in a foreign country, you need to be completely fluent in a language, when in fact a basic level of competence and a willingness to have a go will get you a long way, and your language skills can transform the fortunes of even the smallest company, as I’ve recently discovered.

I work for Army Dog Tags UK – we sell personalised army-style dog tags via our website and via Amazon. We’re a very small team, just three of us, but we’ve doubled our sales in the last year because we were able to expand our business into Germany. Selling on the Amazon marketplace made it very easy to test the market first, and it’s been so successful that we’ve now launched a German version of our website.

Now, my German isn’t perfect by any means. I did A-level German 20 years ago, it’s a bit rusty, my verbs probably get in all the wrong places and I have a habit of guessing about gender and case endings. But the important thing is that I’m able to tell a customer when their order will be delivered, or help them out with any queries, and it always gives me a warm glow when they write on the Amazon feedback that they’ve had “good, friendly service”.

The one thing where we knew that we needed outside help was with our actual product literature: webpages, Amazon product descriptions and leaflets need to be perfect, so for that, we called in the experts, and used a translation agency (Ways With Words Ltd). Although I could never have translated the product literature myself, I was at least able to understand the texts, so I was able to upload it all to Amazon, and set up the new German website correctly. I’ve also been able to borrow useful words and phrases from the translator’s text in my own communication with customers.

Being able to use my German adds an extra level of interest and challenge to the day’s work, and I’ve learnt quite a lot of German slang phrases from the messages that people put on their tags. One of the more printable ones that always makes me smile is a play on the line from Top Gun “I feel the need, the need for speed” - Ich spür die Gier, die Gier nach Bier in mir - which is a fine sentiment for a Friday afternoon.

I met Jane Shuttleworth via Twitter after we both attended a Tallis Scholars concert at The Sage Gateshead last Christmas.  Jane has been fascinated by languages since her first trip abroad at the age of 12, when she was delighted to find that people in France could understand her. She studied French and German A-level, and Russian at Durham University. After a career in international sales jobs in various countries, she now divides her time between part-time work for Army Dog Tags Ltd and writing. She is about to publish her first book, a guide to the novels of Dostoevsky.  You can read more of Jane's writing here.

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