Building an Interpretive Services Area Part 1

Customer Relationship Management, Vol. II, No. 4, December 1997

By Jeanan Yasiri

You've most certainly recognized the changing ethnicity of your customer base. Perhaps in recent years you have even tried to address language barriers you have with these consumers by identifying key employees or other resources available to "help in a pinch". You might think you have the matter under control, but would your non-English speaking customers agree?

Regardless of the industry you represent, you are undoubtedly enjoying the business of more non-English speaking consumers. If you sell a relatively simple product / service, your attention to this area will promote convenience for both customer and staff and undoubtedly increase your profit margin. However, if you are in the business of providing health care, financial, legal or utility services or other commodities that are truly essential to day-to-day functioning, consider the problems if information is not fully understood. Your investment in a well-managed interpretive services strategy is critical. It will demonstrate your commitment to this new population of consumers. It will also help you avoid regulatory scrutiny.

The statistics are too numerous to list but nevertheless impressive. For starters, census projections indicate that by the year 2025, Latinos will constitute the largest "minority" group in the United States, surpassing African Americans and Asians. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of Latinos in the United States could exceed 30 million people.

Census figures also indicate that 14% of people residing in the United States speak a language other than English. In California the figure is 33%, in New York 24% and Florida 14%. The figure is expected to grow to 30% nationally by the year 2010. While the incidence of non-English speaking clients is certainly less prevalent in the mid-Western part of the country, be assured the need for interpreters there is growing quickly as well.

Your approach to bridging the language gap with this important consumer base requires a multifaceted plan. The following list provides an easy starting point to establishing an area that can bridge this gap and help you provide excellent service to all your current and potential customers.

1) Determine your needs.

Start by assessing who you want to communicate with and how many of those consumers are currently seeking your business. You might be surprised to learn that your need is great enough to justify having full or part-time interpreters on staff in specific languages. Talk with your customer service representatives and front line staff. Ask them how often they are faced with a non-English speaking client and have no resource by which to fully communicate with them comfortably. A simple tracking mechanism with the help of site managers can help you determine problem areas as well as locations where needs and certain languages are most prevalent. Don't assume that hiring the services of independent interpreters will fill your bill. Having staff on hand can promote efficiencies and demonstrate your commitment to this service area.

2) Talk with local advocacy and community groups.

Check in with the groups in your community / service area that currently represent your non-English speaking customers. Ask about the needs consumers have in your community. You will likely be met with open responses and eye opening information on how your business is currently perceived in meeting those needs. Engage the services of these groups in locating appropriate consumers for focus groups as well as locating interpretive assistance that meets the needs of your customers and business.

3) Develop a list of qualified interpreters.

Even if you decide to hire permanent staff, having a list of qualified, independent interpreters available is important. However, this requires a great deal of attention to whom you place on the list. Make sure their qualifications are proven. It's not uncommon for individuals to approach businesses and volunteer their expertise in the area of "language interpretation". Don't be fooled. Simply knowing how to speak Spanish does not make you an interpreter who has adequate background in medical, financial or other technical terminology that may be required in the conversation. Further, interpretation is the art of facilitating a conversation between two parties. (See "Building an Interpretive Service Area, Part 2," March 1998 for more details.)

Don't settle for amateurs. They may come to you on the cheap, but you will pay in the end.

4) Check certification or other assessment of the interpreter's skills.

Many language interpreters have received certification through organizations like the American Translators Association in Alexandria Virginia. ATA sets standards for its members. If the interpreter, has no specific certification, convene a panel to assess the individual's interpretation skills, ethics and style. Recognize that while language is important in both verbal interpretation and written translation, an individual may be particularly skilled at one and not another.

5) Review independent interpreters as you would an employee.

Have all interpreters complete a comprehensive application, interview and orientation process. Don't forget that your consumers look to these folks as representing your organization. In fact, the consumer likely has no idea that this is an independent contractor, regardless of whether the interpreter has stated this as part of their introduction. Make sure you are contracting for services with people you truly want representing your company's interests. Check the individual's references. Make sure you have a mechanism for ongoing contact, supervision and evaluation of these independent interpreters.

6) Establish a Code of Conduct.

Whether working with employees or independent contractors, make sure they review a Code of Conduct* you have prepared with your company logo at the top. This code should address all appropriate areas to your business including the interpreters ethical responsibility to the client, to the organization hiring them and to their other interpreting colleagues. Your Code should include a nondiscrimination statement and a confidentiality agreement. It should be signed by the interpreter before they start work for you.

7) Have guidelines* for using an interpreter available to staff.

Many staff are quite intimidated by the process of engaging in a conversation with a non-English speaking individual if they have never used an interpreter. An internal company guide that refreshes the employee's memory on how to use an interpreter helps all involved.

Basic points to include:

  • Allow enough time for interview. Interpreted appointments can easily run twice as long.
  • Address the consumer and not the interpreter during the conversation.
  • Use words, not gestures to convey your meaning. Highly technical terms should also be avoided.

Finally, recognize that you are on the brink of enjoying business with a client base that brings with it new requests, new service ideas and new delights. Be available to them on all necessary language and culture levels just as you would be available to those consumers who speak English. In doing so, you'll demonstrate the customer service principles your organization has previously set forth and likely embrace a group of consumers that are currently searching for the business that truly "cares to communicate".

*Documents including "Interpreters' Code of Conduct" and "Staff Guidelines for Working with an Interpreter" are found in Putting The Patient First: Upfront with Advocacy and Community Service. Copies are available through Medical Group Management Association by calling 303/397-7888.

Need an Interpreter Available 24 Hours a Day?...

A service available through AT&T can help in making certain you are always standing by with qualified interpretive assistance, regardless of the time of day.

The Language Line was originally a not-for-profit business based in Monterey, CA that was acquired by AT&T in 1989. Today they are the market leaders in providing over-the-phone interpretation to customers throughout the United States, Canada and Great Britain. The broad range of service industries they represent include insurance, medical, financial, travel and retail.

"When you call us, you can generally get an interpreter in under 45 seconds, and we offer interpretation in over 140 different languages," notes Maria Dias, a Marketing Manager with AT&T Language Line Services.

"If you want to reduce your number of days of account receivable from 120 to 90 days and you're working with a non-English speaking client base, we can help with that," says Cons Agbannawag, Sales Director for AT&T Language Line Services. "(Over the phone interpretation) not only helps you meet your bottom line, but also makes that customer feel good about being able to communicate with your organization."

The Language Line can also help in meeting the cultural needs of your customers. "We found that Middle Eastern women wanted female interpreters," says Dias. "So when our clients call, you can request a female interpreter. Most of us in the U.S. don't think about that."

The Language Line employs hundreds of interpreters across the U.S. and Canada with over 70 percent working out of their homes. This telecommuting model provides for cost efficiencies and readily available staffing.

On-staff interpreters must have education native fluency in the languages they are interpreting. They are tested in their non-Native language as well. If they pass, then their English is tested. Only those scoring in advanced categories (based on the American Council of Foreign Languages) are on staff. Additionally, the Language Line is able to help clients in developing assessment tools for the interpreters those organizations are using on-site.

Information on the Language Line can be obtained by contracting AT&T at 1-800-752-0093.

"Putting the Patient First: Up-Front with Advocacy and Community Service" is a new book co-authored by SOCAP members Jeanan Yasiri and Bob Richards. In addition to identifying a number of issues that physicians and clinic groups should consider when working with patient complaints, it addresses the increasing need for excellent interpretive services.

Thanks go to Tim O'Donnell, Christy Mokrohisky and Pam Olson for their input.