talks my language

HBR April 2016 priceline

Just read a fascinating article about, the internet travel company. A great example of going in the opposite direction to the crowd.

The travel industry is a multi-billion dollar and pound industry. Global, of course!

Insights into how has flourished are revealed by the company’s CEO Darren Huston in the April issue of Harvard Business Review. (Huston is also CEO of’s parent group Priceline).

If you are in a customer-facing business or providing customer service on the phone, here’s a summary of what Huston shared.

The Canadian spoke English, French and Italian by the time he left his teens. After graduating from Harvard Business School he joined McKinsey & Company. Instead of moving on to a company he next joined Starbucks (where he arranged to put wi-fi in all their ‘stores’ – yes, that’s what they call their cafes).

Next step up was to join Microsoft, where Huston became CEO of Microsoft Japan. A call from a recruiter resulted in his joining the Priceline Group as the guy to run

In the early stages, the company already had a strong foundation – plus a good reputation for customer service.

Huston still felt there was room for improvement. did not support every language. Service was, according to him, good but not yet excellent. A number of systems and processes were missing.

Huston ensured the phone number was put on EVERY page of the website. This involved additional cost but was compensated for by increased customer loyalty.

The typical view at the time was consumers hated automated recordings which began with “Press 1 for…, 2 for… and so on”. Huston wanted to check this out with research. The findings revealed a different picture.

What found was that for simple requests, customers actually preferred a web-based automated system. But only if it was well designed. By moving simple requests to recorded responses, it freed up reps to spend more time with customers with more detailed or complex enquiries.

As a global travel business, Huston understands consumers want to speak to you in THEIR own language. today has 6,000 full-time customer service staff. Every one of them speaks English and one or more other languages. Some speak as many as eight different languages.

The strategy is designed with one thing in mind – to deliver better customer service.

To get more Portuguese speakers for its Orlando call centre, the company advertised at international football events at a local stadium and recruiters attended Brazilian cultural events (because Brazilians speak Portuguese).

Determining how many customer service reps with a particular language are required is a matter of monitoring and research. has found people from newer markets, such as Brazil and China, tend to call more often. Maybe because they are less used to booking online.

South Americans tend to stay on calls longer, so the company might need to recruit more speakers of their languages to prevent having to put people on hold.

There are other complexities. Some customers don’t like talking to people who are not native speakers. Japanese callers, for example, can often tell whether the rep is from Singapore, the USA or Japan.

Apparently, Americans do not like speaking to reps with a British accent. And the reverse is true, too!

Huston says has grown fourfold in five years and is currently the biggest online accommodation platform in the world.

So, if your business has a customer service team which deals with international callers maybe there are some lessons you can learn.

And if you’re providing specific, valuable services to your customers… obviously make sure you are telling your customers about it.

On your website. In your emails. In your newsletters. In your brochure. In your marketing material.

Don’t assume your customer knows.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *