When Luxury Speaks a Different Language

languageI recently spoke about luxury sales and customer service at a special event hosted by Quintessentially Lifestyle in Panama City, Panama. Quintessentially offers its members curated luxury lifestyle services and experiences around the globe. The event took place at the elegant Waldorf Astoria Panama Hotel and was sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, L’Oreal, Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Multiplaza Pacific Mall. Attendees included business owners and luxury associates from the hospitality, retail, banking, real estate and media sectors.

Victoria and the Quintessentially team (from left to right: Rene Estripeaut, Mileidy Castillo, Victoria Macdonald, Enoly Rodríguez, Verónica Pérez, Julia Ortega, Alfredo Smith)
Victoria and the team from Quintessentially (from left to right: Rene Estripeaut, Mileidy Castillo, Victoria Macdonald, Enoly Rodríguez, Verónica Pérez, Julia Ortega, Alfredo Smith)

Just before I packed my bags, I serendipitously read a Business of Fashion article about Panama’s growth as a luxury fashion market: (see “Panama, Latin America’s Nerve Centre”).

With about 9,900 ultra high-net-worth individuals currently living in Latin America, the region now has more people with assets over US$30 million than in the Middle East and Russia combined. And the super-rich in Panama are growing at the second highest rate among all Latin Americans…

My shopping appetite was whetted by mention of luxury malls such as the Multiplaza Pacific Mall and the newly built Soho Mall, which together feature an abundance of high-end shops such as Tiffany, Chanel, Prada, Dior, Hermès, Rolex, Valentino, to name just a few. Rene Estripeau, CEO of Colombia and Panama Quintessentially graciously offered to be my guide during my first shopping excursion into Panama’s capital city.

While I was enticed by the malls’ chic surroundings and stylish fashions, I was somewhat surprised to discover that many sales associates did not feel comfortable speaking English. I came to realize that Panama’s luxury market is luring high-end buyers from other Latin America countries, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala and Venezuela. Therefore sales associates have little opportunity to speak English, even in luxury establishments. Most were hesitant or afraid to try, and their reluctance showed in their body language. I left most of the stores not having experienced true luxury service.

And then something extraordinary happened. I walked into Prada. Once again, my sales associate spoke very little English. Yet this young man keenly observed as I perused several dresses. After a few minutes, he disappeared and returned with both arms laden with dresses. He laid them out individually so I could point to the ones I liked as he noted my style preferences. When I picked up a fabulous dress that had caught my eye, he nodded, pulled out his cell phone, and quickly scrolled to a photo of a model wearing the dress so I could envision how it would look. Though he didn’t speak my language, he was able to deliver a unique and personalized luxury customer experience through his passion and confidence.

As luxury brands expand into new markets, the barriers to language can make or break a customer experience. It’s important for brands to cater to the international shopper by employing multilingual sales associates, providing proper training, and utilizing technology. Yet, this experience showed me the most important asset is a sales associate who is passionate, self-assured, and savvy enough not to let language get in the way.

To help develop your confidence in assisting a foreign-language speaking customer, here are a few tips:

Joy from Pixar's
Joy from Pixar’s “Inside Out”
    • Show joy
      There are seven universally recognized facial expressions. Joy is one of them. Let your customer know you are happy they are visiting your establishment by smiling—a smile distinguished by lifting the corners of your mouth and crinkling the corners of your eyes. Another cross-culturally recognized expression is fear. Trust me. Your customer can tell if you’re uncomfortable or afraid.
    • pencilDraw a picture
      Keep a pencil and paper handy if you or your customer can use a drawing to communicate an idea.
    • Use non-verbals
      Demonstrate product features and allow your customer time to explore the item.
    • Ask for help question
      Don’t hesitate to see if there are others around who speak your customer’s language or to enlist the help of a bi-lingual colleague. If you do find someone, enlist their help as an interpreter while you maintain eye contact with your customer. When associates realized my guide Rene could translate for me, they spoke directly to him and I felt disconnected from the experience.


  • Be patient
    The key to overcoming any language barrier is to exercise patience. It’s not your or the customer’s fault that you can’t speak each other’s language.
  • Use technologycellphone
    There are several phone apps available that will instantly translate your voice into a selected language. If that’s not an option, your brand’s website may already be translated into your customer’s language. Use it to find the right words you need.
  • Try another language
    See if there’s another language that might facilitate the interaction. My husband and I were once lost in Portugal and neither of us spoke a word of Portuguese; nor did the gentleman trying to help us speak any English. But after trying Spanish and French, we discovered he spoke some German and we were able to get the information we needed. Hey, you never know.
  • Learn some basic phrases
    On my return flight from Panama to New York the woman next to me pointed to a sandwich on the cart and asked: “¿Cuánto cuesta?” The flight attendant replied “Turkey.” I was amazed an international flight attendant didn’t know this basic Spanish phrase. If you know your customer base is global, learn some basic phrases in several languages or have a card handy with printed translations. Here are some good phrases to have in hand:

Good morning / good afternoon
How may I help you?
Of course
I don’t know, let me find someone to help you.
Do you like this?
How would you like to pay?
Thank you
You’re welcome

Remember, it’s not about you. Your mission is to create an exceptional luxury experience for your customer. He or she won’t remember if you mispronounce a word or used the wrong preposition, but they will remember how you made them feel.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

― Maya Angelou

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