Customer service professionals often make an all too human mistake: they imagine that the person on the other end of the line is someone who’s like them.
This type of implicit bias can take many forms, but it’s unlikely that most contact center agents envision a person with a disability when they start a dialog.
But they should. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a whopping 25% of Americans are disabled and one in three have unmet health care needs.
Regrettably, too many companies neglect to consider access for people with disabilities when thinking about customer experience (CX). Not only is this risky—given that such discrimination is prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—but it’s also bad for business.
How can you connect with customers and meet their needs without acknowledging their reality? Everyone who engages with your contact center needs to feel that they matter, that they are being heard, and that the agents they interact with know how to help them. Empathy and understanding are crucial ingredients for creating great experiences, regardless of ability.
Similarly, companies need to consider how they are enabling their employees of all abilities to succeed. Like customers, employees who feel understood, and whose needs are met, are far more likely to be loyal to their employers. But when company culture creates a dynamic where employees need to hide their disabilities, resentment grows, and morale suffers.
A New Perspective
Successful customer service includes empathy, effectiveness, and efficiency. But too often, a lack of accessibility fails customers with disabilities. Let’s take a look at how we perceive and understand disability.
Disability can be a visible, readily identifiable condition, like deafness or cerebral palsy, but it can also be an invisible one like anxiety. It can be something that affects vision, hearing, cognition, mobility, motor skills, or emotional stability. Disability can be lifelong, acquired, temporary, episodic, situational, or chronic.
Therefore, we have to adjust our perspective. We have to plan for the possibility of disability instead of designing systems in an ableist way.
Instead of thinking about designing for inclusion as being something extra—a “nice to have,” as it were—we need to think of it as designing for all people. If a company can offer great experiences with products and services for all people, their customers will feel truly understood, respected, and cared for. It’s easy to see how this will affect loyalty and retention.
Substantive Changes For the Workplace
Once a company decides to broaden its focus to include people with disabilities when designing CXs, it’s natural to also think about crafting inclusive workplaces as well.
Ensuring that workplaces are more accessible is both an investment as well as a shift in mindset.
Doing so you will be tapping an excellent, motivated workforce that has unfortunately suffered from a much higher jobless rate than the rest of the population according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The most critical part of accepting and indeed welcoming employees with disabilities is rethinking corporate culture.
If leadership doesn’t explicitly discuss disability and destigmatize it, those employees and customers dealing with it are more likely to struggle in silence. They are more likely to fear that raising an issue at all is “making a big deal” out of it. In some cases, this can create the exact prejudice that the employee was trying to avoid in the first place.
But when you create an atmosphere where everyone can openly discuss their needs, you can create change culturally. Unlearning stereotypes and bias around ableism is an important first step to creating a culture of acceptance and positivity.
Listening and learning is key. This can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary first step.
There are also the more obvious fixes, i.e., the blocking and tackling. Like the following:
- Eliminating physical barriers.
- Setting aside parking spaces. Installing ramps.
- Designing workplaces that allow for wheelchair navigation.
- Providing workers with height-adjustable desks.
- Making sure that elevator buttons can be reached by all.
- Offering flexible hours and remote work for people dealing with mobility issues and episodic disabilities. Work-at-home also accommodates those with serious chronic health conditions who cannot risk undue exposure to contagious life-threatening illnesses.
And when you’ve addressed some of these more obvious areas of need, be sure to include them in job postings and job descriptions. Produce guidelines that explain the company’s position—that you’re actively hiring people with disabilities, that your workplace is solving accessibility challenges—and that employees are working together to create a positive and inclusive culture.
Finally, establishing disability etiquette can go a long way. Not sure what’s needed? Ask your employees directly. Or hire a consultant who specializes in workplace accessibility to perform an assessment.
Technology to the Rescue
It is now table stakes for today’s businesses to implement technological solutions that provide access for both customers and employees with disabilities.
Technology allows organizations to evolve in many ways: from offering automation of manual processes to implementing machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
Additionally, advancements in neuroscience, as applied to user experience and human-computer interaction, has had a huge impact on how humans interact with products.
There are many types of technologies that help bridge the gap and make contact systems usable for all. Some include:
- Audible text readers for visually impaired customers.
- Email/chat for hearing-impaired customers.
- A video option for the hearing impaired to sign with agents who have this skill set.
- Web IVR for self-service.
- Support for screen readers.
Becoming familiar with where your business is lacking in terms of access is the starting point.
Chances are good that there are technology solutions that can bring your contact center up to par. For every customer. For every engagement.
In conclusion, making your customer service and your workplace inclusive and accessible is an investment that changes lives. True understanding and respect are necessary to build thriving customer relationships.
When customers’ needs are met, the message is that they matter. The same is true for employees.
Making these changes will create customer experiences and workplaces where everybody can thrive and truly feel that they belong.