Benjamin Lee Whorf said: “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” With insurance practices and terminology differing so greatly across the globe, imagine trying to explain, understand, buy or sell insurance policies in another language, even if you speak a little of it. Insurance agents in the UK needn't try to imagine this scenario. It is becoming reality. If you haven't experienced it yet, you will. If you choose not to, you'll be missing out on a growing market of potential lifetime loyal customers. Consider these population facts:

  • From 1995 to 1999, as many as 229,431 people were granted UK citizenship. Citizens of Indian sub-continent countries comprised over 25% of all citizenship grants in 1999, with Africa accounting for nearly 25% and the rest of

    Asia for 20%

  • In one London borough, 76 different languages are spoken by schoolchildren. Police, hospitals and other social agencies deliver services in 15 to 25 languages in a week, and up to 40 in any one month.

    These non-English speaking people need insurance, want to buy it and can afford it. However, the fear of having to decipher language, when the risk of miscommunication could so easily result in disaster, keeps many of these new prospects from even trying. Further, the risk is not borne solely by the insured. Insurance companies can lose time and alienate customers because of misunderstandings that occur in dealing with people who primarily speak another language. But they can also lose customers if they ignore the opportunity.

    Disappearing boundaries

    So how do insurance agents tap into these markets and sell insurance to everyone who wants and needs it? The same way hospitals, police departments and other services across the UK serve non-English speaking people. Fortunately, along with the disappearing global boundaries come technological advances that help us respond to the accompanying challenges.

    One such advent is called over-the-phone interpretation (OPI). Emergency services, councils, agencies, hotels, insurance companies and other businesses can deliver services to customers in over 140 languages. They do it by calling the National Interpreter Service UK (NISUK or NIS), on a freephone number, where they can access interpreters in 146 languages 24 hours a day. The NIS operator connects the limited- English-speaking patron to a trained professional interpreter, in an average of 30 seconds, from any telephone, virtually anywhere in the world.

    Insurance companies across the US have tapped into OPI as a valuable customer service tool. American Family insurance sells its full range of property and casualty insurance in 14 mid-western states, largely in rural areas. As part of a growth initiative, it decided to target Chicago, a city rich in cultural diversity.

    Gwen Jones, director of emerging market development, said: “English is not an easy language to master. If you are an adult immigrant, it can be very difficult. We had to find tools to help break down linguistic barriers. So we gravitated to the over-the-phone interpretation service to help us tap into this market.

    “We have a mission of giving outstanding customer service for all customers at American Family. We want to make it easy for people to do business with us. So we invest in the tools to make it happen.”

    The UK is beginning to emerge from a long- entrenched view that if an interpreter is needed, then the client must find one. Mark Kiddle, director of the National Interpreter Service, comments: “When I started in language services ten years ago, I took the view that an interpreting service has to be for everyone. We can't just make a few of the most common languages available.

    “I think it was in a Victorian novel that the question was asked: ‘What language do you suppose is spoken in heaven?' Back came the answer: ‘English will do'.” While English might “do” in heaven, it will no longer do in the UK.

  • Amanda Sullivan is from Vantage Point managment.

  • Topics