Language Access in the International World of Luxury Retail

November 16, 2009

Editors note: The following blog post discusses the interpersonal relationship and divergent business carreers of two long time friends. The tone utilized in the post is designed to convey the nature of that relationship and to convey the conversations and experiences as authentically as they occurred.

In early October of 2009, Douglas Green, VP Business Development, and Camilo Munoz, Managing Director of Translation Source had an informal lunch with Marc Hruschka, CEO of Chopard, NA. While the conversation covered many areas, Mr. Hruschka was candid and open enough to talk about dealing with issues of language access in luxury retail and the important role it plays in establishing relationships with international consumers. This encounter is told by Douglas Green, who has known Mr. Hruschka for over 14 years.

I’ve known Marc Hruschka a while. Our careers are forever intertwined. He has been a mentor, a friend, and a confidant.

It had been 7 years since we had seen each other. The phone calls we had while he rode the train from New York to Connecticut were not quite doing the trick.

When I confirmed a business trip to New Jersey I knew I’d have to cross the river, slip into Manhattan, and climb the steps of the Historic home Chopard now occupied across from Central Park on 61st. It had been much too long.

The Benefits of a Second Language
My first international trip with Marc was to Frankfurt, Germany to the world’s largest show for ‘up market’ writing instruments, pens that could start at a hundred, but easily climb to $10,000 and, on occasion, even the rare air of 6 figures. We had had a successful day at the show, cementing some relationships, securing cooperative advertising dollars, and confirming orders for some rare finds.

That evening we went to a traditional German restaurant. Upon entering we were quickly sized up as ‘American’ and escorted through the main dining area with its crystal and linen to tents pitched in the back with tables arranged end to end with heaters blowing to keep the cold German air at bay.

It was at the end of the meal, when the waiter brought the bill, that the benefits of a second language were made clear.

We handed over our credit cards to the waiter who was clearly expressing complete dismay. Our service had been less than shoddy, our treatment rude, and it was clear from his facial expressions that he did not appreciate the American arrogance associated with paying for fine German food with plastic. The waiter turned, made a theatrical movement with his arms outstretched and said something to the rest of the diners in a vulgar guttural German that I couldn’t understand and to be perfectly honest did not want to. Marc had had enough (and a beer or two). I’ll never forget the smirk on his face as his towering frame rose and he berated the unsuspecting waiter in his mother tongue. With outstretched arms Marc smiled and finished in English ‘German or English Hans? It doesn’t matter to me’ The waiter scurried off and miraculously processed our credit cards which minutes before had seemed an impossible task.

Camilo and I took the Ferry across the river and New York loomed large. A city big enough to handle the 3rd generation jeweler. I’ve never known anyone so suited for a job. Marc is a tall, good looking German with sharp features and a warm personality, he could talk spreadsheets or watches or both without much hesitation.

We climbed the steps of the historic building, the onset of winter in the air. We were immediately buzzed in.

‘Camilo Munoz and Doug Green to see Marc Hruschka’.

‘Of course’ said the receptionist, ‘Marc is expecting you’.

A solid security guard escorted us up to Marc’s office. As soon as the doors opened, Marc called from behind a half closed door, the greeting was quick and sharp and immediate. Introductions were made and we quickly fled the corporate confines of luxury defining Chopard and made our way to a cozy Italian restaurant around the corner. Marc warmly greeted the maitre ‘d and requested a secluded table in back.

International Luxury
We small talked about Marc’s enthusiasm for the automotive world, everything from American muscle to European stealth. Our conversation turned to business and Marc was enthusiastic for the family owned brand. We discussed foreign clients and global opportunities. Chopard’s business in China was strong and growing. Russia was off, but some big sales were happening with former soviet states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

So while this call was about connecting with an old friend, the conversation couldn’t help, but turn to work.

‘So Marc, really, with such an international clientele, how do you handle communication?’

The question dropped like a brick.

Mark smiled to himself, placed an olive pit on his side plate, sized the question up and decided it was innocuous. There was no doubt we could talk about anything, the sizing up was whether he was going to give me a hard time or not. He decided not.

The next few minutes were interesting in that it highlighted problems that most global companies encounter.

Marc talked about his personal experience and the company’s in reaching out to the client in their own language.

The Language Barrier
Marc’s frustration was evident as he talked about the subtlety of the side conversations that were missed when family members interpreted. The lack of a bond with the client that existed because of the lack of interpersonal communication was detrimental to explaining the brand and its provenance, something essential to selling a piece of jewelry that commanded five figures or negotiating international business deals.

Hire Bilingual Staff
Marc talked about the importance of the personal relationship. He was clear that he felt the best way to do this was to hire bilingual employees in specific target languages. There was a nuance and cultural bond that could be quickly established with someone who spoke the language. I couldn’t help but think that it was the same for most of our clients. A strong desire to hire direct and outsource when it made sense.

Translate Documentation
Marc went on to explain that it was also important to support their bilingual employees. He described how all of their documentation and brochures had been translated into their key languages, but obviously, on occasion there was a demand that could not be met, in which case, they would do their best to meet their client’s needs through the use of an interpreter.

Our conversation with the CEO of Chopard, with Marc, made clear what so many other international companies forget – the importance of the personal bond and the lack of cultural and conversational cues that allow the astute sales person to key in on the sensitive points of conversation. Whether it be the Oil and Gas executive negotiating a multi-million dollar contract or the retail sales associate trying to sell a $5,000 watch, the need for clear communication is paramount. Marc got it, Chopard got it, and most importantly, their clientele get it.

If you would like additional information on this topic or have questions on planning and executing your next translation or multilingual initiative, contact us today for a free 30-minute consultation or call us at (800) 413-7838.

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