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According to recent US Census data, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country. US Hispanic income and buying power is growing stronger and is expected to reach over $1 trillion by the end of the decade.

The US Hispanic population has exploded 75% in the last decade, reaching 39 million, while the general population increased just 14%, to 283 million. Although states like Florida, California, Texas, and New York have been commonly targeted due to their significant Hispanic markets, states like Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, and Minnesota are experiencing rapid growth. A nationwide Latin boom is now reality.

The number of Hispanic households with more than $100,000 in annual earnings is growing at more than twice the rate of the general population's. An often-overlooked fact is that Latinos commonly group their family earnings to purchase a car, home, and so on. As a result, many businesses underestimate the purchasing potential of many Hispanic consumers.

The economic importance of understanding the dynamics of the growing Hispanic market has become important to companies that have already been marketing and selling to Latinos as well as those interested in gaining market share by targeting this group for the first time.

Advertising agencies are getting into the action; the media expenditure budgets of large companies are increasing in order to compete for a piece of the Hispanic market. However, too often advertising jumps before a company is ready to properly service Latinos once they become customers. That is a risk that companies cannot afford, especially since genuine Hispanic brand loyalty is built on relationships.

Long-term retention should not be overlooked when the average age of the Latino population is 26 years (compared with 37 years for the general population). The youth segment of the Hispanic market also represents a large opportunity for companies to increase sales and build new customers. A younger market becomes a prime target for companies whose services and products are directed at children. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Hispanic children ages 5-9 is expected to increase 21%.

Marketing plans that target Hispanics should be approached the same way as those for reaching the general population. For example, you would most likely refrain from advertising to your English-speaking customers if your customer service was not ready to handle product inquiries in English.

Customer relationship management is just as important in a Hispanic marketing plan as it is for the general market. Companies need to understand that prior to the launch of an advertising campaign to reach the Hispanic market, Spanish plays a critical role in customer service.

The investment level that a company places in Hispanic customer services is evident in quality of service that Hispanics receive. This also can build or break the relationship—and that is not wise with a market that is brand-oriented. If your customer service center uses a third-party translation service, this makes the customer experience painfully long for the Latino customers. Consider investing in a center providing qualified bilingual representatives of Latino origin in order to retain your Latino customers.

Also, your customer communication channels, such as the internet or a toll free number, should be proven to be customer-friendly. There have been cases where an 800 number provides a message to the Latino consumers to hang up and call another 800 number. It would not be uncommon that the second attempt took four levels of prompts, only to be placed on hold for 20 minutes, leaving the Latino customer no choice but to hang up in frustration.

Understanding the importance of addressing Latinos in their preferred language as well as respecting their cultural heritage should be a priority. For many companies that rely on field sales, the search for qualified bilingual Hispanic salespeople has become critical. Commonly, Hispanics purchase from Hispanic-owned businesses, and an attempt for larger companies to compete is evident when you walk down the isle in a major super market and find a section of Hispanic branded products.

Hispanic segmentation is important with regard to age, assimilation, country of origin, etc. However, unlike many other diverse regions of the world, Latinos all share a common language, Spanish. The difference is that they may use different words with similar meaning, which we may call slang.

For example, depending upon US region, the terms "soda" and "pop" are used interchangeably in the English vocabulary. Part of customer relations with the Hispanic market is about providing your service and product information in their preferred language, Spanish. Even with bilingual Hispanics, the message that a company conveys when they use Spanish correctly is that the Hispanic heritage is important to the company.

Some companies that are pioneers in understanding the importance of Spanish in their advertising are moving toward the use of "Spanglish"—both Spanish and English. Similarly, sitcoms like "Freddie" are appreciated by most Hispanics because they relate to the Hispanic American family. It is not uncommon for the abuela to be living with the family, speaking in Spanish, while the grandchildren reply in English.

Many companies need to carefully evaluate where they are in the process for reaching and building relationships with the Hispanic market. It is a long-term investment that, if approached intelligently and with respect, has the potential to provide the company with a profitable advantage over the competition.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Beltran-Miller is president and CEO of Vista Latinos (www.VistaLatinos.com).