How community banks cross language barriers

Lisa Baker presenting Sgt. Yanira Scarlett with an award
Lisa Baker, vice president and consumer services manager (right), recognizes Sgt. Yanira Scarlett with the Des Moines Police Department during the 2019 Latino Heritage Month celebration at Bankers Trust’s East Branch.

To better reach everyone in their communities, many community banks seek to cross language and cultural barriers by making transactions in other languages or by offering services that appeal to immigrants.

By William Atkinson

Many community banks across the country serve their customers and attract new customers by speaking their language. Some banks are located in areas with large permanent or seasonal immigrant populations, while others are in urban centers with diverse customer bases. Here are how two community banks meet the needs of their multilingual and multicultural customers.

For decades, $4.9 billion-asset Bankers Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, has been known for its commitment to diversity and inclusion. “This includes ensuring that our team members reflect the communities we serve and can communicate with them in their own languages,” says Scott Valbert, the community bank’s assistant vice president of corporate communications.

Bankers Trust has more than 25 employees who serve as interpreters. Many of them are relationship bankers, and other interpreters are on hand to aid staff and visitors inside the community bank’s branches. “Some are in technology, operations or our global banking areas,” Valbert says. “As interpreters, however, they are all prepared to assist other bankers when helping customers.”

Combined, Bankers Trust’s interpreters speak 17 different languages besides English: Bosnian, Cantonese, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Laotian, Malay, Nepali, Pashto, Portuguese, Spanish, Tai Dam, Urdu, Vietnamese and American Sign Language (ASL).

Offering banking services in these languages is part of the community bank’s larger effort to make customers feel welcome. Bankers Trust strives to understand and celebrate their customers’ cultures. “At our location that serves the most highly diverse neighborhoods in the Des Moines metro area, the bank hosts cultural events throughout the year,” Valbert says. “These events help employees, customers and neighbors learn about various cultures, including regional subcultures, through food, presentations and more.”

In addition, Bankers Trust’s 600 employees volunteer a total of about 18,000 hours a year, including involvement with several multicultural organizations in the communities that the community bank serves.

“When immigrants relocate to Des Moines, they lean heavily on referrals from within their communities for services such as banking,” Valbert says. “When a community knows we have employees who speak their languages and understand their fears and concerns, it reduces those barriers and fears.” As a result, Bankers Trust sees a high referral rate, Valbert adds.

“When a community knows we have employees who speak their languages and understand their fears and concerns, it reduces those barriers and fears.”
—Scott Valbert, Bankers Trust

These efforts have also made Bankers Trust a leading and highly respected employer in the markets it serves, according to Valbert, and they help the community bank attract and retain diverse talent. He adds: “We have also earned several honors for our diversity and inclusion efforts.”

Breaking down cultural barriers

From its founding in 1984, $330 million-asset Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York City has been a small, minority-owned bank that serves primarily the Chinese-American community. “The community we serve remains dominated by first-generation immigrants, a customer base that creates at least three challenges for us,” says Jill Sung, the community bank’s president and CEO.

“The community we serve remains dominated by first-generation immigrants.”
—Jill Sung, Abacus Federal Savings Bank

One challenge is the language barrier. For most of the bank’s customers, English is a second language, and some don’t speak English at all. The second is the sociopolitical and economic cultural background of many customers. “They have chosen to leave their country of birth where the government is all powerful, controlling many aspects of their lives,” Sung says. “Hence, they have a natural distrust of government and institutions in general.”

The third challenge is a lack of understanding of money and building wealth. “Many of them are merely trying to survive on a daily basis,” Sung says. “They view money as currency [that enables] one-time transactions to pay for basic necessities: food, shelter, education.”

To help customers address these challenges, bank employees take the time to explain to their customers various regulations and how to fill out forms, and they educate customers using character-based Chinese, rather than alphabet-based English. Employees work hard to gain the trust of customers and try to provide them with the information they need to begin to make responsible financial decisions. At the same time, employees explain that the context in which the customers are making these decisions is different than what they experienced in their country of birth.

Jill Sung
Jill Sung, president and CEO of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, says the community bank helps navigate cultural and linguistic barriers to banking. Photo: Dan Bigelow

Abacus Federal Savings Bank understands the importance of two traditional banking features that are extremely important to helping its customers feel secure.

One service is passbook savings accounts, which help customers feel a sense of security with their money. “This product cannot be automated, and thus the cost of providing it is high,” she says. However, the bank knows how important it is to keep its customers feeling safe and secure, Sung adds.

The other is safe deposit boxes, which provide peace of mind to customers who can rely on their important documents and family heirlooms staying safe and secure.

“Safe deposit box services are labor-intensive, requiring bank personnel to escort customers to and from their boxes,” Sung says. “However, we offer this service because it is important to our community.”

It’s a prime example of community banks’ relationship banking model: providing personal service that meets the needs of customers, whatever language they speak.

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.