Banking & Finance and Human Resources

Overcoming the language barrier

Twenty-two ChoiceOne Bank employees take advantage of free Spanish classes.

May 20, 2016
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ChoiceOne Bank
More than 20 ChoiceOne Bank employees are participating in a nine-week Spanish class to improve their customer communications skills. Courtesy ChoiceOne Bank

One local bank is learning to speak the language of its growing customer market, and that language is Spanish.

ChoiceOne Bank, a Sparta-based full-service community bank, recently started an outside training program that offers Spanish classes to its employees for free. ChoiceOne, which offers personal and business checking, savings and retirement accounts, and mortgage, auto and business loans, started the program April 12.

“With our growth into the Grand Rapids market, we are committed to serving our entire customer base well. With this commitment comes the opportunity to speak our customers’ language — English and Spanish,” said Kelly Potes, president of ChoiceOne.

As part of ChoiceOne’s employee training program, the bank offered the class to all staff members. Employees volunteered to take the Spanish class to increase their skills, from beginners to intermediate Spanish speakers.

Twenty-two employees currently are participating in the nine-week Spanish class, Potes said. The employees in the class range from teller staff to mortgage lenders and a vice president, from seven of the bank’s branches and four departments, Potes said.

The classes are taught by a Sparta community member, Potes said, who is teaching phonetics, greetings and conversational phrases, including banking terminology and counting cash. The one-and-a-half hour classes are held weekly for nine weeks.

“We are very happy with how the classes are going. Our employees are engaged and have a drive to help all of their customers,” Potes said. “We look forward to the growth and abilities of our staff as they continue through the training.”

Interim Rockford Branch Manager Penny Stupnicki, who is in the class, said the experience so far had been “great, interactive and fun,” and she looks forward to utilizing what she learns in classes to better impact her clients and community.

“Not only will this allow more of our staff to be able to assist with helping clients when there is a language barrier, but it will allow us to give back to our communities in ways we were maybe not able to before,” Stupnicki said.

“ChoiceOne Bank takes great pride in its staff and has been focused on helping them develop and expand their knowledge and skills. It is nice to have another tool in the toolbox to make our client experience the best that it can be.”

The classes are in response to the growing Hispanic community in West Michigan. According to the latest census, Latinos represent 16 percent of Grand Rapids’ population, making them the city’s largest minority group. The Hispanic population is projected to increase in the next five to 10 years.

The number of Hispanic businesses, such as Latino-owned supermarkets, restaurants, shops and services, is also increasing, thanks in part to the efforts of groups like the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“We have approximately six fluent Spanish-speaking employees currently and want to broaden our spectrum. Throughout our 12 communities, there are numerous Spanish-speaking individuals, families and businesses,” Potes said.

“We want to provide them with the products and services they need to be successful, today and into the future. Speaking their language will help us secure our commitment to serve them well.”

ChoiceOne, which has 13 locations in 12 communities in Kent, Newaygo, Ottawa and Muskegon counties, recently opened its Grand Rapids Loan Center in downtown Grand Rapids, which also is prepared to support Spanish-speaking customers.

“We recently hired a Spanish-speaking mortgage lender for our downtown Grand Rapids Loan Center: Carmen Villahermosa de Cox,” Potes said. “We are excited to have her in our new office to better provide home loan solutions to our English- and Spanish-speaking customers.”

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