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Effective Use of Telephone Interpreting: A Guide for Agents

Three call center employees.

With the United States now more culturally diverse than ever, language support and telephone interpreting have grown to be a necessary component in call center customer service.

In order for any organization to meet the needs of their customers, the lines of communication must be open, and language barriers must be dissolved. Telephone interpreting via language support services allows call center agents working for organizations to openly communicate with those who speak a different language. As an agent working for a call center, growing accustomed to using an interpreter to facilitate clear communication can be a new experience. However, a few key tips can help you along the way. 


5 Tips for Agents Working With an Interpreter 

Language support availability boosts key operational metrics for any organization and ensures even the most diverse customer has a positive experience. As a customer service agent at a call center, you may need a little training and support in order for interpretation to truly be as successful and effective as possible. Here are a few tips to ensure effective use of telephone interpreting. 

1. Allow time for adequate introductions 

Typically, when an interpreter is invited into a call by an agent at the call center, they will give a short, scripted introduction. The interpreter will also explain their role in the conversation and may provide their ID number assigned by the language support service. Make a note of the ID number for your records, as this ID number can be used to determine exactly who you spoke to during the call if necessary later. This information can also be helpful to add to a customer's file when noting that an interpreter was used during a conversation. 

Once the interpreter has made these introductions, introduce yourself and your customer with limited-English proficiency (LEP) and any other individuals who may be participating in the call. Also, allow time for the interpreter to speak directly to the customer. These introductions build a foundation of trust and rapport, which is especially important for providing your LEP customer with the best customer experience

2. Offer the interpreter a quick explanation or overview of the scenario 

Telephone interpreters are specifically trained to act as a conduit for conversation. However, they don't always translate what you speak word-for-word; they instead aim to communicate the meaning of the words you speak to the customer. For this reason, context can matter. At the beginning of the call, offer the interpreter an explanation of the basic scenario or circumstances of the call. 

3. Speak to the patient/client in first person 

You may be inclined to speak directly to the interpreter. For example, you may want to say, "Tell Mr. Lin that his payment will be refunded." However, this isolates the customer from direct conversation and can make them uneasy. It's important to take a customer-centric approach to make the customer feel like they are your primary focus. Instead, speak to the customer directly: "Mr. Lin, your payment will be refunded." Then, pause after your statements to give the interpreter time to translate. 

4. Use concise and simple language to communicate 

When working with an interpreter, keep your sentences short, pause frequently, and use straightforward language. Avoid overly wordy and compound sentences. Remember, the interpreter must recall everything you say for translation. Too many words at once or words said too quickly can interfere with recalling everything during translation. Don't use metaphors, slang, or idioms that the customer may not understand. Avoid overly technical jargon, and instead, rely on simple speak and basic concepts that are easier to translate and less likely to breed confusion. 

5. Allow time for the interpreter to clarify issues 

Occasionally, you may notice the interpreter must repeat questions or go into a more extensive conversation in an effort to clarify concepts with the customer. The interpreter may also let you, as the agent, know they need to clarify further, or they may ask for you to frame a statement in a different way. Don't feel off-put or concerned when this occurs. Simply be patient and work with the interpreter to achieve better communication. 

Other quick tips to remember 

  • Perform the call in a quiet place free of distractions and background noise
  • Don't ask for opinions from an interpreter 
  • Remember: You direct the conversation, not the interpreter 
  • Use a comfortable volume, and speak at a natural pace 
  • Ask the interpreter questions to ensure everyone is understanding
  • Be patient; language support takes time 


Effective Interpretation Starts With a Customer Service Agent

When it comes to telephone interpreting, an effective outcome that involves the customer walking away well-informed and comfortable starts with the agent. Of course, working with the best language services provider is also important. To find out how to find the best language support services provider, download this tip sheet: 5 things to look for when scouting a language services provider for your contact center. 


Additional Resources