Are you treating your limited English speaking customers fairly?

By Faith Reynolds, a consultant and a member of the UK Financial Services Consumer

I live with au-pairs on a rolling basis – young people that help me out with the kids for a few months at a time, while learning English.  But what I have learnt from my experience is that in the early days when they say ‘yes’ with a smile what they really mean is ‘not got a clue what you just said’!

Sound familiar? Ever been on holiday abroad in that situation?  Nodding? Smiling? No idea!  That might be ok when you’re on holiday, but is it ok for a customer in your bank?  Let me tell you why it’s not and what you can do about it.

Banking jargon can be a major hurdle even to native speakers so imagine if you’re new to the country or have limited English skills.  Making an insurance claim, questioning your ‘key facts’ document or complaining about fraudulent activity on your account is tricky.  Terms like ‘motor legal expenses’, ‘premium waiver’ and ‘annuity’ are not self-explanatory.  Added to that, certain words – like ‘advice’ and ‘guarantee’ – can take on special meanings which are different from their everyday use.   Getting by in English day to day is one thing, understanding financial products and services is a whole different ball game.

The problem with the specialised nature of financial services lingo is that it is not used regularly enough by consumers to become familiar or well understood.  This puts people whose native language isn’t English at a distinct disadvantage.

Does it matter?

Well, apart from your firm’s innate desire to delight their customers, there are a couple of other things worth bearing in mind:

Main language not EnglishThe Office of National Statistics is predicting that our overall population will grow by about 4.4million in the next 10 years, and of that growth approximately half will be down to immigration.  That’s about an extra 220,000 extra people per year who are unlikely to have English as their first language.  In 2011 the Census showed that almost 8% of the population is a second language English speaker and that rises to almost a quarter of the population in the city of London.

As the population make-up changes so does your customer base.

The regulator also expects banks to ‘treat customers fairly’, ‘paying due regard to the needs of its clients, and communicate information in a way which is clear, fair and not misleading’.  The Financial Conduct Authority’s paper on Consumer Vulnerability quotes various legislation and its own research to show where banks need to up their game.  And a lack of English language skills is down on the FCA risk list.

As the population of second language English speakers rises, so will the pressure to make sure they are not put at a disadvantage by the complexity and intransigence of your firm’s services.

So, what to do?

One of the key messages that runs like a gold thread through the FCA piece on consumer vulnerability is the need for flexible responses to people’s needs.  Translation and interpreting services offer that flexibility to help second language English speakers make sense of financial services and, as importantly, take the pressure off front line staff, so they’re in a better place themselves to really help the customer.

When building a strategy for developing multi-lingual support, start with what you hope it will mean for your customers and your frontline staff so you stay focused on the outcome. Working out what they need might involve collecting information about language preferences and assessing staff’s bilingual capabilities.

Take a look at the customer journey.  Work out the touch-points where people most regularly come into contact with the product/service.  Take particular account of the less popular or complex features of the product and the areas where existing customers most often complain. Think about the likely life events that make all customers more vulnerable – job loss or bereavement, for instance. Consider how limited language capabilities could compound those other vulnerable characteristics.

Do you need translation services or would interpretation be more effective?

Once you’ve got a solution, formalise the process for language assistance and get your staff trained up so they know how to hand off to another team or dial up to an interpreter.  Staff should be reassured about their role and be able to give the customer their best.

Download this white-paper about banking on in any language to learn more about best practices.

About Faith Reynolds
Faith Reynolds is a member of the Financial Services Consumer Panel, where among other things she leads on accessibility and vulnerability.   Alongside this, Faith is a member of the ESMA Financial Innovation Standing Committee Consultative Working Group and the Strategic Risk Committee for the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.  She is on the Friends Provident Foundation Advisory Group which funds work promoting resilient economies.

Previously she spent time at the Institute for Government undertaking research on Big Society earning her the Clore Social Leadership Fellowship.  She established Toynbee Hall’s financial inclusion services in the heart of London’s multilingual East End and was a member of HM Treasury’s Financial Inclusion Taskforce.

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