Customer Service & the Preferred Interpreter

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Our end-user clients, consumers, or customers include the staff and licensed professionals of hospitals, courts, social service organizations, businesses, police departments, first responders, and schools. Our clients also include those members of the public who do not speak English or who are Deaf or deaf-blind and who rely on us to interpret for them.

After an encounter in which an interpreter was involved, what taste is left in the mouth of the various clients of that interpreter? What would they say about the customer service they received?

Particularly, was the interpreter perceived as friendly or unfriendly? Calm or into drama? Organized or disorganized? Helpful to all parties, not helpful to anyone, or helpful to some parties but not to other parties? Genuine or plastic? Collegial or arrogant? Socially polished or clumsy? Respectful or abrupt?

Did the interpreter make any unpleasant comments about the staff, the professionals, clients needing communication support, or other interpreters? How did the interpreter handle unpleasant comments made by staff, professionals, clients needing communication support, or other interpreters?

There is steep competition between interpreters in the major languages, and it is tempting to make negative comments about other interpreters and to promote oneself. This generally backfires and produces a poor customer service experience for the client. Clients prefer interpreters who sing the praises of other interpreters, because that raises the credibility of all interpreters in the clients’ eyes.

Because the interpreter’s ONLY job is communication, interpreters are watched much more closely for their customer service skills than are other professionals. For example, the teacher is judged by parents for her success in teaching, and she is forgiven for customer service lapses like being demanding. The nurse is judged by her management of wounds and disease and technology, and is forgiven for not making eye contact or smiling. But the interpreter is watched at every part of the interaction and is judged to see if he or she is fully present, pleasant, positive, and helpful to everybody.

Even-handedness is a big deal. It is noticed immediately if the interpreter is cold or demanding with the receptionist or clerk, but friendly toward the doctor or lawyer or official. Non-English-speaking and Deaf clients notice when the interpreter treats them without warmth, while behaving as a friendly peer with the English-speaking professionals. Staff notice when the interpreter acts hostile toward them, while chatting in a friendly manner with their non-English speaking or Deaf client. Likewise, interpreters that provide the same level of customer service to all parties are perceived as being neutral and impartial.

When interpreting through remote mode, such as via telephone or video, these customer service skills remain highly important to how the interpreter is perceived. Many complaints from licensed professionals about a telephonic or video interpreter refer to the fact that he or she was rude, abrupt, demanding, or disrespectful to one of the parties. High marks are given to interpreters who politely greet the non-English-speaking or Deaf client as well as the service professional, and who are gentle and calm and positive throughout the conversation.

Interpreters from smaller language groups, even though they are in high demand and unlikely to lose their job, also leave a definite impression in the mind of each client. If the impression is positive, the client forms a positive impression about community members of that interpreter’s language group, about interpreters from that language group, and about interpreters in general! On the other side, if the interpreter’s poor customer service left a bad impression, that impression can be transferred to all the members of his language group and to interpreters in general.

Among and between interpreters, both inside language groups and between different language groups, there is a constant flow of information about who is respectful and helpful and collegial, and who is competitive against other interpreters, dismissive of staff, or anxious to buddy up with the officials and licensed professionals at the expense of the clients (customers or consumers) needing communication support. Some entire language groups of interpreters are considered by other language groups of interpreters to be non-collaborative.

What have you heard or seen in terms of interpreter customer service? Have you ever been negatively affected by bad customer service skills of other interpreters? Have your own clients complimented you on your good customer service skills? Please share your stories and observations in the comment section below.