Whether you’re calling customer service to help you set up your new computer or simply want to get in touch with a local government agency, phone systems and call centers can be tricky enough even for native English speakers to navigate.

Faulty voice recognition software and confusing instructions cause frustration for many of us, but they’re even more likely to cause problems for callers with limited English proficiency (LEP). For individuals with LEP, making a simple phone call to a government agency, medical institution, or any other organization can become a daunting task if the phone system isn’t set up with their needs in mind.

Many organizations provide over-the-phone interpreting services — as they should — but inadvertently set up their phone systems with critical breakdown points for LEP users. When it comes to language access over the phone, interpreting isn’t enough: Your phone system also has to be as user-friendly as possible.

With open enrollment season upon us healthcare organizations and insurance agencies are bound to receive heightened demand on their phone systems and call centers. That means it’s crucial to reflect upon ways they can improve the experience they provide for callers with LEP.

Here, we’ll explore some especially common barriers that LEP patients encounter when contacting call centers for various organizations.

6 Ways Phone Systems Create Barriers for LEP Patients — And How to Break Them

Your phone system can make or break an individual’s experience seeking out help from your agency.

Here are some common troubles that people with LEP encounter when trying to contact healthcare providers and insurance agencies over the phone — and ways that you can help improve their experience and provide them the service they expect.

Overly Complex Phone Trees

Complex phone trees can be a major obstacle for anyone — and particularly so for patients with LEP. While simplifying your phone tree is ideal, it’s not always feasible for every organization.

Still, there are ways to reduce breakdowns even if you can’t create a simpler phone tree. If callers have to listen to and select from several menu items, it’s a good idea to have separate phone numbers for different languages, making it more efficient for individuals to reach the right department without frustration.

Language Misidentification

It’s critical for organizations to have clear methods for identifying the patient’s preferred language before calling an interpreter. After all, you certainly don’t want to misidentify a caller’s language and wind up with an interpreter that doesn’t speak their language.

Self-identification is one common method that phone systems utilize — i.e., have menu items that read “For English, press one” and “Para español, marque dos,” et cetera., that connect speakers to employees or interpreters who will help them out in their preferred language.

Additionally, artificial intelligence tools that can automatically recognize a speaker’s language using voice recognition are slowly but surely growing to be more competent, and could one day be useful to implement in your phone systems.

Unclear Communication

If a caller does get connected to somebody that doesn’t speak their language, employees should be prepared to contact an interpreter and inform them that an interpreter will be on the line shortly.

This information must be conveyed clearly and quickly — individuals with LEP may not stay on the line for long if they cannot effectively communicate with the other person on the line, so letting them know that help is on the way is key. A pre-recorded message saying “Please hold for an interpreter” in the caller’s primary language should be an effective way to keep the caller on the line while you wait for an interpreter to come on the line.

Additionally, some agencies opt to create phonetic guides that employees can use to read the message to callers in a handful of different languages; this way, employees can convey the message on their own, without having to actually speak the language in question.

Inadequate Employee Training

One of the most common barriers for LEP patients is the lack of proper employee training — if employees are not properly trained, communication may be inefficient and callers will quickly grow frustrated or confused and hang up.

Make sure to offer comprehensive training to your employees during the onboarding process, covering topics such as how to call interpreters and how to use your organization’s phone system to connect with them effectively.


It’s important to keep the caller on the line at all times. Some set-ups require an employee to disconnect the call and then call the patient back — this is far from ideal, as it can confuse the caller and, depending on how long it takes to call them back, they may not pick up the second call.

Additionally, LEP patients may not even be able to give your employees their phone number, considering the language barrier that required an interpreter in the first place.

Make sure that your employees can seamlessly connect with the interpreter without hanging up and calling them again — this may simply be a matter of re-training your employees or implementing a more advanced phone system.

Bilingual Voicemail Messages

If your organization uses bilingual messaging in voicemails, it’s important to include a notice in the target language at the beginning of the message. All too often, LEP patients have to listen to a long, drawn-out message in English — unsure of whether or not it will be followed by a translation in their language — before hearing the message in their language.

While bilingual messaging is certainly important, be sure to present it in a logical manner. Before starting your English message, consider including a simple opening line in the target language that reads along the lines of “This is a bilingual message,” so callers know to expect a translation following the English message. This step eliminates confusion and ensures that the LEP patient knows to listen to the entire message before hanging up or leaving a message.


This open enrollment season, take some time to consider ways in which your phone system and call center processes can be improved to create a smoother experience for callers with LEP. Here are some ways to eliminate common barriers LEP callers may face:

  • Simplifying phone trees with separate language-specific numbers can enhance efficiency.
  • Put language identification methods such as self-identification or automatic speech recognition in place to streamline interpreter calls.
  • Record a simple “Please hold for an interpreter” message to reduce confusion.
  • Train your call center employees on effective ways to communicate with people who have LEP.
  • Avoid disconnects to ensure smooth, seamless connections to an interpreter.
  • Include brief notices in the target language at the beginning bilingual messaging in your voicemails.

At Avantpage, we’re proud to provide over-the-phone interpreting services to help your organization connect with clients who have LEP. Contact us today at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040 for more information.