Canadian Underwriter

Helping new Canadians navigate the world of insurance

July 18, 2018   by Brooke Smith

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Canada has two official languages: English and French. But in our multicultural country, two languages don’t always cut it—particularly when it comes to understanding complex matters.

Take insurance, for example. Once new immigrants have settled in Canada, they may eventually look to buy that first home or purchase a new car. While understanding insurance is a challenge for many Canadians, it’s even more of a challenge for newcomers. That’s where brokers can help.

Serving the immigrant community means brokers have to go beyond the typical broker role, says Royale Leung, CEO and president of BrokerTeam Group of Companies. “We have to be an educator [and provide] a lot of reminders. We have to be very patient,” he says. “They don’t have too many friends in Canada.”

“Our retention usually is very high because we are not only acting as a broker; we are acting as a point of reference for many things,” he continues. “We communicate more with the client so they refer a bit more when you help them out, especially in a difficult situation, such as claims.”

“If you’re in insurance, to win your market, you need to hire the market. If you’re working in a diverse city like Toronto and you have no diversity [in your workplace], why would people want to purchase insurance from you?”

At BrokerTeam’s office in Richmond Hill, Ont., about 95% of its insurance professionals are immigrants from Asia. “We are immigrants serving immigrants for the first and second generations,” says Leung. The firm serves new Canadians mainly from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, and some from Korea.

More than 60% of BrokerTeam’s clients are first-generation immigrants, and English is not their first language. While many of Leung’s clients from Hong Kong read English well, they prefer to converse in their native tongue. “If they want to see a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, they would rather use their own language,” he says. “It’s the same with insurance.”

Excess Markets is similar, serving residential and commercial clients in the Chinese-Canadian community in Richmond, B.C. The Chinese population in the province is about 465,000, representing about 10% of the total population, says K.S. Leung, president of Excess Markets. “This is a big and growing market,” he notes.

Costen Insurance in northeast Calgary serves mostly an Indian community, with roughly 70% of its clients coming from India or Pakistan. Clients of Costen, as well as Excess Markets and BrokerTeam, are not just new immigrants (in Canada less than five years); some have been in the country for 20 or 40 years.


The number of private players in India’s life insurance sector in 2016, compared to 4 in 2002

Source: India Brand Equity Association

Challenging times

While brokers like Costen and Excess Markets have employees who speak their clients’ language, it’s not always easy. Typically, explaining insurance to new Canadians takes some time.

Royale Leung says that explaining one simple transaction with an English-speaking client may take about five minutes, but 10 or 15 minutes for a Chinese client. “Even when we talk about the insurance terms, we need more time with Asian clients than with English clients,” he says. “There are more questions.”

There’s not only the language barrier, but also the concept of insurance itself. Immigrants have had insurance back home; however, insurance in Canada is different. “In North America, we buy insurance for protection and peace of mind,” says Royale Leung. “They have difficulty getting this concept right away when they’re first in Canada.”

The cost of insurance in China, for example, is usually relatively low compared with the living standard there, says Royale Leung. For example, if an immigrant buys a new car here for, say, $10,000, the insurance maybe be $5,000 for the first year. “They will find that unacceptable the first time. However, this is the fact that they have to know,” says Royale Leung.

“Our retention usually is very high because we are not only acting as a broker; we are acting as a point of reference for many things.”

“We need a lot of time to educate them on this concept; otherwise, they will think insurance is a waste of money,” he says. “There’s no right or wrong; it’s how you perceive it.”

He also notes that it’s not simply understanding insurance but the idiosyncrasies that go with it. “In many cases, something that looks like common sense in North America isn’t in China.” For example, he points to not keeping the temperature too low in winter so pipes don’t burst. Clientele originally from a warmer climate wouldn’t think about this. “As a broker, we have to remind them. Usually, that advice comes from the insurance broker, not from the real estate agent.”

The hiring game

It can sometimes be challenging to find insurance professionals who speak the language of recent immigrants.


registered insurance companies in China in 2015, up from 138 in 2009

Source: Statista

Excess Markets tries to find employees from the Chinese community. “We have advertisements in Chinese TV, magazines and the phonebook, and we have sponsored some activities organized by various Chinese Associations,” says K.S. Leung. He adds that he does get a few job applicants contacting the company directly.

Although Nirmal Lombsar, insurance broker at Costen Insurance, has advertised in Punjabi magazines and newspapers, she mostly finds her employees by word of mouth. Currently, she is looking for an assistant who speaks either Punjabi or Hindi, but at press time, she still had not filled the position.

But should it simply be left to the brokers to communicate with new Canadians? “Most insurance companies don’t have adjustors who can speak Hindi or Punjabi or other languages—only English,” says Lombsar. “When the insurer asks something, if the client can’t understand the question, how they can answer it properly?” While Costen can intervene and be the go-between, she still thinks it’s important that insurance companies have employees who can speak not only English but all kinds of languages.

Newcomers to Canada: Employers’ best friends

Having a diverse workforce can improve the bottom line of a business, notes Devon Franklin, project manager with Hire Immigrants, a Toronto-based branch of the Global Diversity Exchange that works with employers to help them tap into the immigrant talent pool.

“This isn’t about doing the right thing—that comes with it, but we don’t sell employers on that,” she says. “For us, workplace diversity is among the most important predictors of a business’s sales revenue.” According to McKinsey’s 2015 Diversity Matters report, companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns higher than their national industry median.

Insurers and brokerages can benefit from hiring employees that reflect the communities they serve, Franklin says. “If you’re in insurance, to win your market, you need to hire the market. If you’re working in a diverse city like Toronto and you have no diversity [in your workplace], why would people want to purchase insurance from you?”

Hire Immigrants provides feedback to employers on various hiring processes; for example, reviewing current practices to ensure employers aren’t screening out eligible candidates because they have foreign credentials or foreign-sounding names, or ensuring language and religious accommodation are recognized when onboarding employees. The organization also offers a webinar series on a variety of topics (a recent one looked at overcoming unconscious bias in hiring practices), as well as employer success stories.

Even with these resources at their disposal, employers sometimes need to be convinced of the benefits of hiring from the immigration pool. There are several, and labour needs is one. According to a 2014 report from Miner Management Consultants, the overall Canadian labour force shortage in 2031 will be 1.96 million.

Another benefit is innovation. “Having conflict around your table when you’re trying to solve a problem, having people have different ideas and maybe argue about the best way to solve that problem, actually results in better outcomes,” Franklin says. She points to a Harvard study looking at problem solving with a homogeneous group versus a diverse group. The subjects from a similar socioeconomic background and heritage resolved an issue faster, but the solution was less innovative and less stable. The diverse group took a little longer, but their solution was more effective, efficient and long term.

Employers may fear that immigrants aren’t going to get along with current staff members, or that there may be tension or conflict. “There’s that hesitation,” Franklin says, “so it’s getting employers to see that that initial tension actually lends itself to better results in the long term.”

Access to global markets is another huge benefit of hiring newcomers, she says, noting the experience of a law firm Hire Immigrants worked with. “Because [the firm] had people who had lived in different national contexts and knew different cultural contexts, when it was seeking out new markets to expand into new clients, it was a benefit having that staff on their team who could tell them about their experience living in that culture, living in that national context, [as well as] the laws, the policies and procedures,” she says. “Having someone on your team who brings that added knowledge is an asset and makes you competitive when you’re competing for different markets, sellers or buyers.”

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the September 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.