• Ya'll Habla Espaol?

    June 1, 2006
    It's coming whether you like it or not. The impact of Spanish as the de facto second language in the United States is oozing its way throughout the workplace

    It's coming whether you like it or not. The impact of Spanish as the de facto second language in the United States is oozing its way throughout the workplace and, indeed, into the very fabric of American life. You might not like this, and my column isn't about the positive or negative emotions it seems to carry with it. But this change is occurring.

    I recently was in Lowe's, the home improvement giant. They mark each aisle with a huge overhead sign indicating the corridor's contents: plumbing, hardware, etc. In smaller letters, but certainly readable, is a translation in Spanish. I found myself trying to pronounce the Spanish names as I walked down the edge of the aisles.

    I intensely dislike the idea that you might be in a situation where English isn't understood enough to conduct business in the United States. But I'm not foolish enough to think that speaking only English is sufficient any longer.

    And when we talk about foreign language for the moment, we're really speaking about Spanish. True, there are pockets of different cultures scattered throughout the United States that predominate as the local lingua franca, such as Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese. But across the board, it is the Spanish issue, or rather the Spanish language, that's at the forefront. I realize that those living in Maine might not consider this a hot issue. And they might be correct for the moment. But it simply isn't true in many parts of the country.

    What does all this mean for wholesalers? The most obvious answer is that sooner or later you will have to deal with customers whose primary language is Spanish. Many of you, especially in Florida or the Southwest, have customers who speak English with a Spanish accent. Some might speak broken English. You could, of course, take the stand that it's really not your concern. You figure the Spanish language will really be an issue that your contactors will (or already have to) confront.

    But you should view the growth of Spanish as a great business opportunity. Having someone on staff who is comfortable with Spanish could be a big boost to your business. It will make those who speak Spanish more comfortable in dealing with you. I would suggest that whomever you might hire become conversant with the HVACR terms in Spanish, however. Many Americans are unfamiliar with common HVACR terms even in English. That means someone fresh out of college will not speak the language of the industry. It doesn't mean they couldn't spend some time studying or catching up with the Spanish terms that apply to the HVACR industry.

    But I would go one step further. I've been in seminar after seminar where speakers extol you to differentiate yourself from your competitors. “Take charge of your business, and don't become a seller of commodities,” is what they tell you.

    Think how useful you would be to a contractor who doesn't have a person who speaks Spanish AND who understands the HVACR industry when it comes to closing the sale or clarifying a technical issue. No contractor wants to lose a sale because of a language barrier. After all, the color green is a language that everyone knows and respects.

    Also, no contractor wants to return to a job because of a misunderstanding that occurred based on a language barrier.

    It's probable that if a contractor ran into a stumbling block and called your employee, Juan, a conversation might go like this:

    “Juan, I've got this problem. I'm at a customer's house, and his English is shaky. I'm trying to explain why we should install a 13 SEER unit with 410A refrigerant, but I'm not sure he understands. Could you take one minute and explain it to him? If he buys, I'll be in tomorrow for the unit.”

    Want another tip? Create a small booklet or glossary with HVACR terms in Spanish. Put your company logo and contact information in it. Give it to your customers. Give them plenty of copies and tell them to put it in their glove box.

    Now, if that doesn't gain customer loyalty, I don't know what will.

    And it will also, at least for a time, create contractor customer dependence on you, the wholesaler. And that is a very good thing.