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Language Line Services Does an About Face (-to-Face)
Posted by Nataly Kelly on January 28, 2010  in the following blogs: Business Globalization, Best Practices, Market Data, Supplier Business Issues, Translation and Localization
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This morning, Language Line Services (LLS) announced that it will use its staff of 8,000 interpreters to offer face-to-face (F2F) services throughout the state of California. Why is the company suddenly making such a strong play for in-person services after decades of touting the benefits of its remote interpreting services? We spoke with Louis F. Provenzano, Jr., President and COO of Language Line, to get more details about the announcement, which comes amidst the buzz of its much-talked-about initial public offering.

Language Line has been focusing on medical interpreting for quite some time now. As we've written before, the company generates a large share of its business in the healthcare space -- which pays a premium price for services -- and has thus aimed to protect this market from price compression. Leaving the discussion of medical interpreting aside, here is why we think this move could be a game-changer for the industry at large:
  • A bridge for the consolidator gap. When it comes to in-person interpreting, the world is peppered with thousands of small agencies, most of which have fewer than 10 employees. Last year, when publicly traded Purple Communications jumped onto our ranking of top language service providers (LSPs), we saw one of the first examples of small interpreting agencies coming together to form a large one. However, that move only addressed the gap in the sign language interpreting market. For spoken language face-to-face (F2F) interpreting, outside of Lionbridge in the government arena, no large company has taken much of an interest in the space, leaving companies with needs for interpreters across multiple geographic locations with no option to centralize their on-site interpreters with a sole provider -- and realize some of the cost benefits associated with centralization. And, given the company's history of acquisitions, F2F interpreting agencies looking to sell their businesses may have a new potential suitor.

  • Recognition of on-site interpreting as a valid choice. For far too long, telephone interpreting companies have tried to sell customers on the benefits of telephone interpreting without acknowledging its true role -- just one necessary option in a big, wide world of language services. As we pointed out in our report, "TI Supply-Side Outlook," on-site interpreting still comprises the majority of the spoken language market, and probably will for a long time to come. By showing that it understands this reality, Language Line makes clear that it is not trying to "replace" face-to-face interpreting, but rather offer a suite of services to cater to its customers' diverse and ever-expanding needs.

  • Improved resource utilization. Language Line has one thing at its disposal that makes this announcement truly unique: a national workforce of full-time employee interpreters. In a world of freelance interpreting, full-time employment is much desired, but extremely rare -- especially for languages of limited demand (LLDs). While a court or a hospital might employ full-timers for Spanish, most other languages are out of luck. So, contract work rules in this space, leaving very few interpreters with a job that offers paid breaks and vacation. Consolidating more interpreting work via different delivery methods -- video, telephone, F2F -- gives interpreters for Farsi or Armenian what Provenzano refers to as, "new career opportunities and enhanced compensation packages" -- important news at a time when global unemployment is hitting record highs, and when competitors like thebigword are issuing threats to drive telephone interpreting prices down even further.
This last point is important to both interpreters and clients. Buyers of interpreting services often lament that interpreters are grossly underpaid for the important work they do. After all, it is difficult to attract high-quality talent with meager amounts. Customers want their interpreters to render every word with machine-like precision and human sensitivity. But they want this at the lowest price possible. Language Line's initiative fuses both its desire to provide interpreting services at a reasonable rate with the reality that if you don't pay qualified interpreters enough, they'll look elsewhere for work.

The bottom line is this: Language Line's new on-site interpreting business stands to help the company retain better talent, pay interpreters more, provide their customers with more options, and break into a much larger market. And, perhaps most importantly, the voice on the other end of the phone finally has a face.


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Keywords: Interpreting, On-site interpreting, Telephone interpreting, Vertical market studies, Video interpreting

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