The Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hosted a “Debt Collection and the Latino Community Roundtable” in October to examine how collection and credit reporting impact Latino consumers - particularly those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

I listened to the webcast and want to share key points and recommendations for collectors. The idea is to help them match their Spanish language service delivery standards to their English speaking criteria and help reduce compliance concerns when collecting from LEP Latinos.

It’s important to mention that while the agenda was available in Spanish, the hosts were remiss in organizing a live translation during the roundtable. A Spanish translation was promised, but nearly two months later, one was still not available.

The roundtable gathered consumer advocates, industry representatives, state and federal regulators and academics to interact and exchange experiences on issues including:

  • an overview of the Latino community, their finances and the collectors who contact them;
  • pre-litigation collection from Latino consumers;
  • the experience of LEP Latinos in debt collection litigation;
  • credit reporting issues among LEP Latinos;
  • developing improved strategies for educating and reaching out to LEP Latinos about debt collection.

The presentations highlighted the importance of addressing Spanish language collections in the U.S.
The Department of Commerce and Census Bureau report that more than 63% of all LEP individuals in the U.S. are of Latino origin and Spanish is the predominant language spoken by both foreign-born and native-born LEP individuals.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, written long before the surge in growth of the U.S. Hispanic population, does not address language communication issues collectors encounter in their operations.

The consumer advocates at the first roundtable, Pre-Litigation Debt Collection from Latino Consumers, had strong words for the collection industry.

Alysson Snow, supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, stated that “solving debt collection problems [for LEP Latinos] is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Collectors are ill-equipped to handle and resolve disputes from LEP Latinos and debtors turn to consumer advocates to assist them.

Bernard Eskandari, deputy attorney general, Consumer Law Section of the Attorney General’s office in California, stated that written communication he has observed to LEP Latinos is “woefully inadequate.”

He has seen poorly translated materials, including content such as “Terms and Conditions” not listed with a credit product in Spanish or only partially summarized in Spanish.

Eskandari named these examples as “particularly sinister” because it appears the companies chose to not include complete information and might be deliberately taking advantage of non-English speakers.

Leaving out appropriate Spanish language communication at the front end of the credit process can create serious issues when an account enters collections or a legal process.

Collectors serving LEP Latino debtors already face a tough job and scrutiny from regulators and must practice due diligence so as not to be lumped into the category of carrying out troublesome practices.

There were many lessons learned from the roundtable, including:

Use a Language Preference Flag

A systemized language preference indicator needs to be assigned and be attached to the account throughout the credit and collection lifecycle. Most collectors don’t discover a customer has LEP until the first call. Best practices require the customer’s communication preference to be entered at account origination.

Ensure Accurate Translations and Language Consistency in all communication

Spanish is spoken in more than 23 countries and the language varies depending on the country and even in regions within the same country.

Just as the English language varies around the world, words and phrases in Spanish can carry double meanings, connotations and different definitions from place to place.

I’ve heard mono-lingual English speakers say that "Castilian Spanish" should be the defined language in U.S. Hispanic market communication, however "Castilian Spanish" is simply a geopolitical term that is used as a synonym for "Spanish" especially when it refers to the Spanish language as defined by the Royal Spanish Academy. It has no more practical application in the business world than saying the "Queen’s English" should be used in the Commonwealth realm.

In U.S. Hispanic Best Practices companies use "Business Spanish" - a neutral, business vocabulary that is understood by any Spanish speaker.

If your company communicates with LEP Latinos in Spanish, ensure all of your channels speak Spanish. Be certain that when a debtor selects the "Spanish" option on an IVR that a qualified Spanish-speaking collector answers the call. Likewise, correspondence, SMS and e-mails must be written using correct Business Spanish communication rules.

Partially translated written material, where some content is written in English and other parts in Spanish, such as websites, disclosures, letters, emails, etc., will not serve LEP Latinos.

Incorrect translations are just as inadequate and misleading. Many LEP Latinos prefer to muddle through trying to understand English written content rather than deciphering poorly written communication riddled with Spanglish, incorrect wording, grammar mistakes and spelling errors.

Financial services bilingual glossaries provide an invaluable help for collectors when they include variations of credit and collection terms used in Spanish-speaking countries. They note differences between words and meanings in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and Central and South American countries. Use of glossaries by bilingual collectors improves accuracy, consistency and compliance in verbal and written interactions.

Select, Test and Hire Qualified Bilingual Associates

Understanding the challenges of bilingual debt collectors is just as important as recognizing the communication needs of LEP Latinos. In the U.S. the bilingual workforce falls into one of three groups:

  • Immigrants whose native tongue is Spanish and who were fully educated in Spanish, and, therefore, are 100% proficient and literate in speaking, reading and writing in Spanish;
  • Heritage learners who were born in the U.S., learned Spanish informally at home, but received their education in English. Heritage learners who never study Spanish in high school or college can be competent, informal Spanish speakers, but in the U.S. most have limited to no reading and writing abilities in Spanish; and
  • Cross-cultural individuals are those whose native language may be either English or Spanish, but who have highly developed language communication skills in both languages and, therefore, are often fully proficient in verbal communication skills and many are literate in written Spanish and English.

Most contact center associates hired as collectors in the U.S. tend to be heritage learners who are able to demonstrate conversational Spanish proficiency and can speak in coherent, mostly grammatically correct sentences, using general purpose vocabulary.
However, because they never received a formal education in Spanish, most are unable to read or write in Spanish. Some are unable to spell in Spanish because they never learned the Spanish alphabet, or understand punctuation marks. They might struggle when talking about numbers such as monetary terms, time and date vocabulary or ordinal numbers and have limited knowledge of formal business communication usage and terminology.

Conversations that heritage learners have at home with family and friends do not prepare them for a job as a collector.

It’s a myth that casual Spanish speakers who learn collection terms from their coworkers on the job don’t require additional training in Spanish. Many heritage learners are able to learn basic work terms required for a bilingual position, but most companies don’t understand their Spanish language learning needs.

Companies tend to train industry-specific content in English only. Then, to the Spanish speaker, the trainer will say, “Now go say that in Spanish.” What happens is that these bilingual individuals invent words, use Spanglish and incorrect phrases putting collection companies in a vulnerable spot for compliance and customer care.

A critical component when hiring immigrants, heritage learners and cross-cultural individuals is in-language training. This is key in industries that use specialized terminology such as in the payment industry, debt and legal collections and credit reporting. 

“Business Spanish” training in collections, including an industry-specific glossary of financial terms, is proven to cut call times, decrease the number of hand-offs to supervisors and, most importantly, improve recoveries.

Provide cultural awareness training as the Latino community is not monolithic

It’s well known that more than 60% of U.S. Latinos are of Mexican origin. That means up to 40% could be from one of 22 other countries with unique customs, language usage and culture. Even subtleties such as conversation styles can trip up a collection conversation.

For example, collectors on the West Coast, mostly of Mexican or Central American heritage, often report that East Coast Spanish speakers from the Caribbean speak too fast and use words that are too familiar or even offensive in business.

Collectors from the East Coast who collect from individuals on the West Coast observe that their customers speak very slowly, are easily offended and expect formalities in a conversation about financial matters.

Cultural awareness training helps collectors better understand and effectively manage the cultural diversity that exists within the values, beliefs and perceptions of Spanish speakers in the U.S.

Deploy the appropriate business model to serve Latino LEP individuals

The three most common business models U.S. collection operations use to communicate with their Spanish-speaking debtors include: a three-way language telephone interpretation service; an offshore BPO located in a Spanish-speaking country, or, an in-house bilingual team.

Each solution meets different needs and has benefits and challenges. Three-way interpretation services are cost-effective for operations with infrequent calls. Managers expect longer-than-usual call duration because there are three parties on the line: the collector, the interpreter and the customer.

Offshore BPOs are ideal for high call volume centers since operational cost savings are large. However, managers accept that recoveries could be lower as compared to in-house operations because collectors in other countries could miss cultural cues and other subtleties necessary for optimal collections.

Many U.S. collection managers prefer an in-house bilingual team that meets several business requirements. Collectors in such cases are fully trained and vested in the company’s business policies and practices meaning there are fewer cultural gaps to hinder strong communication and recoveries.

Conclusion

In its Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the CFPB announced it's gathering information on LEP issues that arise in collections. This is the industry’s chance to offer input before regulators write rules that impact collections. It behooves collection companies to evaluate and strengthen their internal processes for serving LEP Latinos.

Astrid Rial is president and founder of Arial International, which can be found at: www.arialinternational.com. She can be reached at: astrid@arialinternational.com.

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