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Lost in Translation: How to Address Language Gaps with Clients

Sep 26, 2019

As the U.S. population becomes more multicultural, the needs of non-English speaking clients will change the way in which agents and brokers service their customers. Lack of communication and poor documentation present significant E&O exposures for insurance professionals—risks compounded by a language barrier between agent and client.

Clients who do not speak English fluently often bring an interpreter when visiting an agency. In this case, agents should:

  • Obtain the interpreter’s full contact information.
  • Ensure that the interpreter fully communicates to the client what is and is not covered by the policy in question. This may require frequent checks to confirm nothing is lost in translation, especially when using insurance terminology.
  • Include notes in the file to document their discussions with both the interpreter and the client.
  • Never let an interpreter complete and/or sign an application. The client is the person who should complete and sign the insurance contract. If the insurer's application is written in English, clients should not sign non-English documents. Multiple dialects across various languages leave room for misunderstanding.

Language diversity is here to stay. Particularly in multilingual communities, agencies should consider hiring bilingual staff to better serve their clients' needs. Remember the same best practices apply for bilingual staff in terms of file documentation. Even when an agent speaks the client's native tongue, the agent should still include notes in the file when communicating with the client.

What if the client does not have an interpreter and the agency does not have bilingual staff? Consider referring the client to another agency that can assist. If agents cannot communicate with potential clients because of a language barrier, it is best to refer the client to an agency that can service their needs in their native language.

Alison VanDyke is an assistant vice president, claims specialist with Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and works out of the office in Overland Park, Kansas.


Best Practices

Here are a few tips for supporting your customers who do not speak fluent English:

  • Hire bilingual staff.
  • Partner with an independent producer who can communicate with non-English speaking clients.
  • Retain a translator on a case-by-case basis.
  • Make independent, contemporaneous notes to a file when communicating with any client, reflecting thorough translation of any key documents—including all application questions—for the customer.
  • Take advantage of any language services your carrier may offer, including applications, policy forms and promotional materials in the customer's preferred language.
  • If unable to service a particular client's needs because of a language barrier, refer that customer to another agency for which that barrier does not exist. —A.V.

    By Alison VanDyke, Reprinted with permission from IA Magazine.

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