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Building a Great Company Culture -- When No One Speaks the Same Language

By Roy Hessel, CEO,, Bethesda, Md.
Our company's mission is to make affordable eyeglasses available to people everywhere in the world. So that means, by necessity, we serve people in different countries and different cultures. As you can imagine, that posed some significant challenges.

One of the biggest issues was the fact that we started receiving customer inquiries in a dozen different languages -- which meant we needed to hire customer service staff to field all the orders and inquiries. That presented its own problems. How do you establish a cohesive workplace culture with workers coming from so many different cultures?

In the end, our's international expansion was a huge success: We've doubled our revenues for the fifth year in a row and employee turnover has been kept to a minimum. Here's how we made it work.

Europe first
Our goal is to offer better vision for everyone, everywhere. We're headquartered in Bethesda, Md., but our eyeglasses are sold online, across the world. We focused first on the U.S. market because it was the easiest place to get a foothold -- we were dealing in the same language, same culture, and same currency. We expanded into the European market primarily because of the region's widespread use of credit cards. But that jump immediately introduced six or seven languages into the mix, which was a little daunting.

The first step to dealing with this was simple enough: We translated our website. It was a one-time cost, and I simply hired translators to make the website accessible in European languages.

This caused an even greater challenge. Because once the website was up in different languages, we had even more exposure. Our customer service inquiries in Spanish, Italian, German, and other languages went through the roof but we didn't have the staff to handle these multi-lingual service requests.

Dual strategy for expansion in new markets
Ramping up the number of languages our customer service staff could handle was a challenge. For starters, we hired new employees once it was clear we had a certain level of demand in that language. We would assess the amount of emails we got in French, for example, and hire a representative when we had surpassed a certain number. We have a location outside of Paris that services all of Western Europe; this location also makes it easy to hire representatives in the area who speak multiple languages.

We also used new language hires as a resource for expanding into new markets. For instance, we didn't have a lot of Japanese inquiries but I saw Japan as a market with a lot of opportunity. So we hired a customer service representative from Japan because we knew that she would be an invaluable in-house resource. Employees native to a country can easily do research on determining the right price points for products and look at what the competition is doing. This employee helped us break into the Japanese market.

Keeping our international staff happy
Our customer service staff looks like the United Nations -- we have people speaking different languages in each cubicle. For everyone to feel like they were a part of one company we knew we had to create a warm, homogeneous environment. But different cultures, not to mention different languages, mean it's easy for people to misunderstand one another.

So we took a hands-on approach to creating an office culture. We have a location in San Francisco; Manchester, England; Paris; and Shanghai. I visit them frequently and emphasize doing activities together. Off-campus activities like sports events allow people to interact and build social connections beyond the professional space. And during these events, we insist people sit next to colleagues they don't normally sit next to, and to ask each other questions about their background.

This approach made people nervous at first -- they would giggle because it was out of their comfort zone. But I think it has worked. I can see that relationships have developed among our 200 employees and turnover is low because we believe people have a place to be themselves. And if they're learning from their colleagues, and enjoying spending time with them, they are more likely to be patient with customers on the phone.

Our office atmosphere plays a direct role in our business performance. What was a healthy business with a few million dollars in revenue several years ago has grown and doubled every year since reaching revenues in the tens of millions in 2010.

Although he is often out traveling the world, Roy Hessel calls Shanghai home.
-- As told to Caitlin Elsaesser


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