Techniques: Microcases

Problem: Conducting multilingual sales over the Internet

Solution: Internet-based translation service

Payoff: A 60% increase in international sales

James Kantor is a little embarrassed. The CEO of Eastern Avionics International, a $6-million company that markets navigation and communications equipment to private pilots, admits that he used to delete a lot of his E-mail without reading it, for the simple reason that he couldn't understand it.

The company, which is based in Punta Gorda, Fla., often receives E-mail composed in foreign languages, but Kantor speaks only English. So when he'd find messages in, say, Spanish or French in his in-box, he'd either ignore them, obviously a major risk in the case of prospective customers, or send a standard reply asking the writer to please submit an English translation. More often than not, he'd never hear from the potential customer again. The French market in particular, he says, "was lost to us."

Kantor considered solving the problem by hiring bilingual salespeople--pilots who not only spoke another language but also understood how to use the more than 800 components Eastern Avionics sells. But after some investigation he decided the pickings in southwestern Florida--a haven for retirees--would be too slim.

He was about to give up on E-mail-generated overseas sales when his Web-site developer introduced him to Comprende, a real-time Internet-based service that translates E-mail, Web pages, and on-line chats and newsgroups into French, Spanish, German, Italian, or Portuguese (from Globalink, $250 setup fee plus $100 a month for a corporate account).

Now when an E-mail arrives with the salutation "Hola, SeÑor," Kantor is ready, willing, and able to act on it immediately. Consider the Spanish missive he got shortly after he signed up as a beta tester for Comprende. He copied the text of the E-mail into the "message" box on the Comprende Web site, typed Eastern Avionics' E-mail address into the "sender" and "receiver" lines, pressed the "Spanish to English" bar, and then clicked on "submit." The Spanish message went into Comprende's server, which contains the translation software, and within a minute or so landed in Eastern Avionics' in-box in English.

The customer, it turned out, wanted a used autopilot component for his Cessna 182. Kantor replied in English that he had the part and would send it on receipt of funds, copied the body of the message to the Comprende server, and shipped the translation to his Spanish-speaking customer as soon as Comprende E-mailed it to him.

Kantor is also taking full advantage of the service's Web-site translator. Sitting on Comprende's server are versions of Eastern Avionics' Web site in five languages. Customers merely click on the country flag of their choice on Eastern Avionics' site to link to a home page they can read.

Comprende is not without its flaws. In fact, translations of idiomatic phrases can be humorously literal, and words the software doesn't understand remain in the original language. For example, the translation of the Spanish E-mail requesting the Cessna 182 part reads, "An automatic pilot that is of double axis for a cessna 182 am looking for....Ahead of time agradesco their attention to this matter." The translation is not perfect, says Kantor, "but at least I can understand it."

He also understands what his company has been missing by not reading all its E-mail. In the first 10 weeks he used Comprende, international sales increased by 60%. "Our average sale ticket is well over $1,000," Kantor says. "It's a heck of a deal for 100 bucks a month."