Terena Bell is a reporter covering the language industry for MultiLingual, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and others. In a past life, she owned In Every Language, an LSP, and served on the GALA and ALC boards.
Who makes interpreting happen? Ask around — both inside and outside the industry — and the first response you’ll likely get is interpreters, of course.
But that’s not where the answer stops. From scheduling managers to quality assurance, an entire team backs each and every one of those interpreters, handling the language and logistical needs that get them on the line. Keep going past that, and you’ll often find more back office staff who keep the business itself in motion: sales personnel, accountants, office managers — a host of multilingual and monolingual roles that also make interpreting go.
So what about them? Who are they?
In this month’s “Behind the Scenes,” a MultiLingual column profiling these very people, meet Jorge Ungo, a strategic account executive for healthcare clients at Monterey, California-based interpreting provider, LanguageLine Solutions. He’s also well-known within the US industry for past and present volunteerism with the National Coalition on Healthcare Interpreter Certification (NCC), the original effort to offer medical interpreter certification in the United States; both of the country’s current certifications, the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (National Board); and the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC).
ML: Jorge, tell us a bit about what you do. Is it pretty much the same job as sales would be outside the industry or is it different?
JU: I manage client relationships with large health systems in the southern and central US. Besides retail sales, this is the only sales job I’ve ever had, but I imagine that it’s not too different.We have quotas and metrics to meet internally just like most sales organizations. And, in order to be really effective, we must have subject matter expertise, which I don’t think differs much in other industries.
ML: You mention you worked in retail. What made you want to sell interpreting as opposed to staying in that industry or selling something else?
JU: Honestly? I kind of fell into it. I was working for (MasterWord, a Houston, Texas-based language services provider (LSP)) for several years (in a non-sales role) and had reached the level of director of their interpretation division. I would routinely go on sales calls with the sales reps because I could really get down into the weeds with the customers and prospects. After a (company reorganization), I was transitioned into being the primary salesperson for that division. From there, I set my sights on working for Pacific Interpreters, but the only role available was in sales.
What I love about being in language services sales is that I really get to play an active and vital role in the delivery of culturally competent care with the health systems I support. It’s not just about closing a deal and moving on to the next one. The sale marks the beginning of a long-term relationship. Ultimately, I thrive knowing that the services that they get through me will help to improve health outcomes and, in many instances, save lives.
ML: Why does the interpreting industry need sales specialists as opposed to having project managers, the CEO, or someone else handle accounts?
JU: Managing client relationships takes time, finesse, and strategic thinking. I meet so many people internally that say, “I could never do what you do,” which always surprises me because I don’t think I have any magical selling skills! What I do think sets me apart is that I have almost two decades working in language services in several different roles – which is uncommon among the sales professionals in language services that I meet. I also have a background in theater and public speaking which helps me when I’m presenting to or providing training for customers.
ML: You have been much more involved in the industry than most. So why are you in sales as opposed to another role?
JU: I’m not a linguist so that limits the types of roles that I would be qualified for in an LSP — and as my husband will attest, I most definitely shouldn’t be in accounting!
Sales has allowed me to use my subject matter expertise to help healthcare organizations improve their language access programs. I enjoy the consultative part of my role: being posed with challenges and finding solutions to help overcome those challenges.Ultimately, knowing that what I do truly impacts another human being – likely someone who has been discriminated against or marginalized in some way – that is why I love what I do.
ML: So you said you’re not a linguist, but you do speak Spanish, right?
JU: I was born in El Salvador and my parents immigrated when I was a toddler so I only spoke Spanish until I started kindergarten. Through high school and college, I mostly spoke English at home and with my friends and rejected the notion of taking Spanish as a foreign language, so I took French. My Spanish definitely waned during those years and it wasn’t until I started working in language services and forced myself to communicate with Spanish-speaking linguists in Spanish that it started to come back to me. Today, I consider myself fluent in English, conversational in Spanish, and a mere beginner in French.
ML: Every interpreting provider has interpreters, but as we mentioned earlier, not all of them hire sales staff, pushing the role off on project managers or others. Are interpreters or other industry colleagues ever surprised to learn your job exists?
JU: Most people within the industry that I meet assume that I am a linguist. I don’t think that they are surprised that salespeople exist in language services, but I think they are always surprised at how long I’ve been in the industry and how I’ve never really worked as a professional linguist. I think that a career this long in language services for a non-linguist is unusual.
ML: What about outside the industry?
JU: I still encounter people who are surprised that language services is even a business! I think the fact that hospital systems spend millions of dollars on language services surprises folks, especially those who don’t work in healthcare.