English is America’s de facto national language, but it is not official and enforceable by law. That could change if English-only proponents win their legal battles, but for now the country is home to many native tongues. The most popular is Spanish, which is spoken by one of every 10 Americans, or 31 million people.

Service industries, such as janitorial and maintenance, are among the top employers of Hispanic workers. The rising number of Spanish speakers in these fields presents both problems and opportunities for jan/san distributors, who must play the role of educator for their customers.

“This a relationship business — how can you have a relationship with someone if you can’t communicate with them?” asks Larry Johnson, jan/san product manager at S Freedman & Sons Inc., in Landover, Md. “I’ve been in some places where even the director of housekeeping has difficulty communicating with their people. It’s not just an issue on our end; it’s an issue in the industry.”

Johnson believes distributors should adapt to their customers, not the other way around, so his company trains its customers’ Spanish speaking employees in their native language. Bilingual business practices are controversial and some distributors, particularly those located in border states where immigration is a hot-button issue, fervently disagree with the concept.

“We are going to collapse within, just like the Roman Empire did, unless we understand how important it is to get our neighbors from the south to speak English,” says John C. Gibson, owner of J-Co Janitorial Supply in San Marcos, Texas. “Why the hell are you worried about us learning to speak their language? This is the United States of America, not Mexico...understand?”

Some who agree with Gibson are able to check their politics at the office door. For example, Mike Esthay, account executive at JanPak Inc.’s Houston, Texas, branch says that “by continuing to accommodate the non-English-speaking segment of our society, we are perpetuating an issue that will only become more burdensome on all businesses.” But he doesn’t turn away customers who have Spanish-speaking employees. In fact, he works with them to offer bilingual training.

Breaking Barriers

Politics aside, businesses that address their customers’ needs have an advantage over those that don’t. A distributor can avoid any client it chooses, but as the Hispanic population continues to grow, it may be a losing bet to write off that market entirely.

“I’m going to cater to the people who have buying power, and Hispanics are a large group of people with large buying power. I’m not going to stand on ceremony to not do business with them,” says Andy Brahms, president of Armchem International Corp. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Unless you have people on staff who are competent to speak to them in their own language, you are missing out.”

Armchem’s commitment to communication runs deep. The company has bilingual employees in nearly every department, including customer service, collections, warehouse, delivery and sales.

“I couldn’t exist without it,” Brahms says. “Customers call and start speaking Spanish and who are you going to put on the phone to speak with them if you don’t have anyone who is fluent? We can communicate effectively.”

Although Armchem employs bilinguals in all areas, most important are those who work closely with the employees who are most likely to speak Spanish. Typically, managers speak English fluently because businesses put people in those positions who are able to communicate well with vendors and negotiate the best prices.

“Nearly every customer I have is owned by a person that speaks English as their first language,” JanPak’s Esthay says. “Most of the actual workers are Hispanic and their first language is Spanish.”

Those who speak little or no English are far more likely to be front-line workers. And those are the employees (regardless of ethnicity) most in need of a distributor’s guidance. They use the products on a daily basis and improper training can result in wasted time and product or, worse, injury.

Training a Spanish speaker in English can result in misunderstandings, particularly because the worker may be too embarrassed or proud to admit he’s confused. S Freedman & Sons has learned this lesson the hard way.

“They smile and shake their head but you don’t know if you got through to them,” Johnson says. “On occasion, we have found out they were using the chemicals for the wrong application so it takes retraining a couple of times before you make sure it gets across.”

To avoid such scenarios, S Freedman now offers Spanish-language training whenever possible. The benefit is not only clear communication, but also creating trust and appreciation.

“They see you are taking the time to communicate with them and you’re doing the best you can,” Johnson says. “If you don’t try, they get standoffish.”

Given Johnson’s openness to bilingual training, it may be surprising to learn that none of his staff members speak Spanish. Despite this barrier, he always finds a way to accommodate his customers’ needs.

“When someone asks if I speak Spanish, I say, ‘no, but let’s find out what we need to do to make it work,’” Johnson says. “If I want to do business with you, I need to help you. We do what we have to make sure we get the training across.”

As Johnson has learned, there are many ways to work with Spanish-speaking customers. Most effective would be if all sales reps were bilingual and could train their own customers in both English and Spanish. Next best would be having at least a few Spanish speakers on staff and pairing them up with sales reps for bilingual training.

“It’s certainly not a requirement to speak Spanish but the first choice is to find someone who speaks fluently,” Brahms says. “If you can come in and train in two languages, that’s a big value-added feature.”

Brahms has 12 Hispanic salespeople from several Spanish-speaking countries, including Colombia, Cuba and Peru. These reps do all of Armchem’s on-site bilingual training, which is delivered first in English and then in Spanish so the Hispanic employees get the benefit of hearing it in both languages.

It’s easy to find bilingual salespeople in Florida, but distributors in other cities may not be so lucky. In those areas, language training can be a useful tool.

Taking The Initiative

With locations in Nevada and California, Tahoe Supply Company is no stranger to the Hispanic market. In fact, nearly 70 percent of its employees are fluent in Spanish. For the 30 percent that are not bilingual, the company pays for Spanish classes or private tutoring with proof of a passing grade. Or, it will reimburse the price of software once an employee shows strong language development.

“With the language training that we provide our employees, if dropped into the middle of Mexico City they could communicate well enough to have a pretty nice meal and find the best places to stay,” says Nick Spallone, Tahoe’s general manager. “They could train people how to clean the restaurant or hotel room pretty well, too.”

A common problem with such training methods is that they often don’t teach slang words, different dialects or local customs. Without this knowledge, sales reps could accidentally offend someone or not fully understand the people they are training. More likely however, the attempt will outweigh the mistakes.

While he was still new to the language, Spallone did a presentation in Spanish 12 years ago that earned him teasing from the crowd. It also garnered the customer’s respect, which prompted Spallone to make being bilingual part of Tahoe’s standard business practice.

“Even though I butchered the presentation it got the audience’s attention and they truly appreciated the effort,” Spallone says. “I realized by simply making the attempt, it improved my relationship with the customer more than almost anything else I could have done.”

S Freedman is looking into purchasing language software for its service technicians and salespeople. To lessen the expense, Johnson may split the costs with one of his manufacturers.

Partnering with manufacturers can be especially beneficial for distributors that don’t have bilingual employees. Most vendors now provide literature in both Spanish and English so all of the customers’ employees can follow along during training. Labels and Material Safety Data Sheets are also typically in both languages, which can help eliminate mishaps.

Johnson has a manufacturer that provides Spanish training tapes. Even better, the vendor occasionally sends a bilingual employee to help Johnson’s staff with on-site training.

When no other option is available, Johnson utilizes his customers’ own employees for help with translation. This “train-the-trainer” approach is quite common and is often the most realistic method for smaller distributors or those in areas with smaller Hispanic populations.

“With more Spanish-speaking middle managers, our reps are better able to perform their training duties than in the past,” JanPak’s Esthay says. “Most of our reps are proficient in training the trainer and most of our customers are satisfied with this system.”

Although this system works now, Esthay expects bilingual training to become a bigger issue in the future. The growth of the Hispanic market is not limited to border states — distributors around the country should be prepared for more Spanish-speaking customers.

“It’s only going to get more prevalent,” Johnson says. “Will the day come that it will be mandatory to have bilingual people? I don’t think mandatory is the right word, but the market is definitely getting more populated with Spanish-speaking people and it’s important to deal with it everyday in the best way you can.”

Today, 13 states have at least a half-million Hispanic residents, but that is likely to grow significantly in the coming years. The number of Hispanics in American has more than doubled in the last 15 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and now makes up 14 percent of the population, making them the nation’s largest ethnic minority. By 2050, the U.S. Census projects that number will grow to 24 percent.

“I would say that it is more of an opportunity than a problem,” Spallone says. “There are a very large number of Spanish speaking workers that need to be properly trained for their job tasks and the most effective way to train anyone is in their native language. The companies willing to accept this will be in the best position to grow their business with the employers that have hired people from the Latino community.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.