Love of Language Leads Insurance Agent to Hispanic Market

At first glance, Kathryn Soderberg would seem an unlikely candidate for an insurance agent whose expertise in marketing to Hispanic customers lands her gigs on radio talk shows and leading Hispanic market training sessions for large insurance companies.

Soderberg, president of Soderberg Insurance Services Inc. in Lynnfield, Mass., a Boston suburb, describes herself as being tall, fair and Northern European looking. Yet the amount of business her agency derives from the Spanish speaking community is 25 percent and growing.

Soderberg couldn’t be happier about that. In fact, she gives her Spanish speaking customers a lot of credit for helping her agency ride out the current soft market and economic downturn.

“We’re affected by the slow down like other folks,” Soderberg said, “but I think it would be more dramatic if we didn’t have the credibility and we weren’t as established as we are now in the Hispanic community.”

It wasn’t always that way. Twenty-five years ago, none of her family owned agency’s business was derived from that community. But a fateful encounter during a voter registration drive at the local town hall changed all that.

To digress, Soderberg is fluent in Spanish. She holds undergraduate degrees in Spanish and English, and a Master’s degree in Spanish. She has studied in Mexico and Spain, and has taught Spanish at the graduate level.

During the above mentioned voter registration event, Soderberg was paired with a representative from a different political party; they would each verify the registration documents the other handled. The person with whom Soderberg was paired “was a really cute, fun lady from Guatemala. We hit it off immediately and were rattling off in Spanish. … It started really with her, this woman named Rosalina,” she said.

When they met, Rosalina was selling home products but she eventually started selling real estate, and when she sold a house she would refer her clients to Soderberg for insurance.

“I realized that, ‘wow if I have five people like Rosalina that sell houses and refer their clients to us, that’s such great business,'” Soderberg said. “So I started working on these centers of influence, like real estate agents and a lot of times mortgage people. … Because Hispanics are still buying properties and businesses fervently, I realized I needed to concentrate on these centers of influence that work with the Hispanic community.”

One of the best things about it, according to Soderberg, is that the agency’s focus on the Hispanic community has allowed her to “marry the love of languages with our family business. That’s kind of what led me into the niche marketing.”

Still, Soderberg said, an agency doesn’t necessarily need “to be fluent in Swahili or Spanish or Korean to make that niche marketing successful, but it certainly helps.”

The majority of Soderberg’s Hispanic clients have roots in Central America, but South America is also well represented. Most of that business comes into the agency through referrals, Soderberg said.

“We’re kind of in an upper middle class bedroom community, of all single family homes. It’s not an urban setting, so I think the fact that we’ve had that kind of penetration in the marketplace is pretty remarkable,” Soderberg said.

A Personal Connection

There is a different kind of personal connection that occurs when providing service to Hispanic cultures, Soderberg said. While Anglos typically will use the phone or Internet to conduct business, Hispanic clients more often want to “sit down face to face and talk to the person who’s helping them out. It’s kind of part of that culture.”

One thing to be aware of when working with Spanish speakers are the cultural differences between various nationalities, Soderberg says. “There’s a big difference, culturally, in someone from El Salvador, from someone from Peru, versus someone from Argentina, versus someone from Mexico. We have to be very sensitive to the differences between these nationalities. It’s like the United Nations here.”

But those differences and the need for sensitivity make her office an interesting place to work, Soderberg said.

“I think everybody’s learned a lot from working with different cultures. It’s really beautiful, actually. What has inspired me is the gratitude. When you work with people who are not from this area and they find a company or an individual that really treats them with respect and gives them what they need, it’s not only good for the referral business. … It makes you want to work even more and help them more because they are grateful.”

Soderberg’s pursuit of the Hispanic community was not always well-received by her business partners or some of the insurance companies with which she has relationships. When the agency started to get recognized for its expertise in the area, one carrier suggested that they shouldn’t pursue that market.

“I just thought, are they crazy? In this recession, in this down economy we have right now, I think — thank God for that, for the Hispanic clients, because they’re still rockin’ and rollin’. They still believe in the American dream, they’re still buying stuff, they’re still starting businesses.”

The personal relationships she’s developed with her Hispanic clients have not only helped to expand the business through referrals, they also have been useful in the hiring process.

When Soderberg, 18 years ago, was looking for the agency’s first Spanish speaking employee other than herself, she “told a client, who told a friend.” Since then, none of the agency’s Spanish speaking employees have been hired through traditional methods.

“We found them through networking. Networking in this culture is extremely valuable,” Soderberg said. “It helps us establish our credibility. … Helps us also find answers to situations that we have. It helps us find employees.”

Soderberg stressed it’s not absolutely necessary to have employees who speak Spanish in order to serve this market. “But you have to have people that have the right attitude, that have the patience to work with people for whom English is not their first language.”

For example, Hispanics typically like to conduct their business in person and that can take a lot of time. Employees need to be prepared for that. Also, because application and claims forms are generally written in English, clients often need help filling out those forms.

Hispanic clients usually want to pay premiums in cash, Soderberg said, and the agency has had to make adjustments for that. While it’s an inconvenience, she figured if they didn’t find a way to handle cash payments, some other agency would.

Additionally, all conversations with clients regarding coverages are “100 percent documented” in English, Soderberg said. “So that everybody in the office understands what transpired.”

A Nice Ride

Soderberg Insurance Services recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Soderberg’s mother and father, who started the agency, still work part time, and her sister is involved as well. The rest of the staff — there are eight in all — feel like family, she said.

Of their foray into the Hispanic market, Soderberg said, “It’s kind of serendipity. I never really thought that it would turn into what it has turned into. But over time it has grown. It’s been a nice ride.”