Yo No Hablo Ingles

According to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in the United States has reached 13.3 percent, or 37.4 million people. Of them, two-thirds trace their roots to Mexico, and 86 percent say Spanish is their first language.

Depending on where you are, the Hispanic presence will vary. The common trait, however, is that it's growing everywhere. Florida experienced a greater than 70 percent increase in Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000, and the average increase for Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas was nearly 280 percent. Although some in this group will speak English, successfully adapting your business will mean embracing the tool and equipment needs of those who primarily speak Spanish.

Home Turf

In growing his business, independent mobile distributor Steve Junkins has worked with a variety of customers who's first language was not English. And one tactic that has proven especially successful with Spanish-speaking customers is regular visits to their homes.

“I've been selling tools for 12 years, and over that course of time I've seen more and more Hispanic technicians working in the shops on my route. Through word of mouth and my current customers talking me up a bit, I've come to establish a really good relationship with many of them,” he states.

Junkins also states that when his Spanish-speaking customers leave a shop he services, they're quick to track him down to ask questions, or request a house call. In many cases, these customers either have home shops or are working on side projects.

“It really varies on why and when I visit a customer’s home. I recently downsized to a van, so that gives me more flexibility, but basically, if I know I'm going to be in their area, I give them a call at home and stop by.” Many of Junkins customers feel more comfortable in their home and speaking their native language.

Although most are of Hispanic or Latin descent, he also has customers who only speak Russian. “If there happens to be a miscommunication due to a language barrier, they can always point out the tool they want in a catalog, or someone else in the home or shop can usually translate," he explains.

“I haven't had too much of a problem communicating with my Spanish-speaking customers, but there have been times where I was a bit confused on what they were asking," admits Junkins. "In most cases I worked through it with the help of bi-lingual friends to get them what they were looking for."

Many of his customers are collecting products and shipping them back to families in Mexico, while some have aspirations to learn the industry in the U.S., and return home to open their own shops.

Junkins has picked up more and more of the language by just being in the shops week after week, but would like to learn even more. “If I know Spanish better, I can be even more effective,” he states. "I get along with all my customers and treat each and every one as if they were my best customer. I deal with all different types of people, and although I may not always know exactly what they're saying, I'm there when I say I will be and I have the tools they're looking for."

By giving these customers the additional attention they desire, Junkins has benefited from more than just their patronage. He also runs a website, www.usedcartools.com, where he has received a number of inquiries in Spanish. “I print them off, take them to one of my many customers who is bi-lingual, and they translate the information for me,” he states.

He's also transferring his entire business database and inventory into a new Palm Pilot. The PDA can be loaded in Spanish and English, and has an audio feature that allows him to listen to translations while working his route.

New Tools Of The Trade

Brian Tuite, a MAC Tools Distributor in Forestville, CA states that while "25 percent of my customer base are Hispanic, 50 percent don’t speak English.” Tuite reveals that he usually can find someone in the shop to interpret, but his knowledge of some basic terminology and the use of hand gestures has aided the communication process.

“When I get home, I also like to go on sites like www.freedict.com and www.freetranslation.com to pick out specific words and phrases related to tools and equipment,” he adds.

Tuite has noticed that some Spanish-speaking customers may be hesitant to do business with people that can't or won't communicate with them, so finding different ways to get in touch with Spanish-speaking customers really proves that you're willing to go that extra mile. It's a customer service measure that might translate to a monopoly on their business.

Adapt And Overcome

“The demand for a Spanish language manual in the U.S. keeps growing each year as the percentage of Spanish speaking people in the U.S. increases," states Richard Gunderson, vice president and general manager of Autodata Publications.

“The Timing Belt Manual is one of our best sellers year after year, and the most requested by the Spanish-speaking market. This is a hardworking segment that continues to grow," he adds.

Tony Molla, vice president of the Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), confirms that in addition to the three tests the organization currently offers in Spanish, more are coming in the near future.

Molla also estimates that there are 127,000 automotive technicians of Hispanic origin, accounting for about 16 percent of the total. To support this group, ASE’s website has a section that is entirely in Spanish.

The Hispanic community is the fastest growing minority in the United States. The key here is to adapt to what your customers need and break down that communication barrier in order to grab their business. By going that extra mile you can increase your customer base, earn their trust and really show that you're there to provide the service they deserve, and the tools they want.