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Improving the Customer Service Experience for Individuals with Disabilities

by Susanne Meyer


Customers with disabilities are precisely that – customers. Part of what this means is that they occasionally have to approach customer service to report and resolve issues with a product or service. Far too often, this results in a problem: customer service representatives are woefully unprepared to help people with disabilities. I’ve witnessed this first hand: Recently, my husband, who is blind, attempted to fix a booking mistake on a major airline’s website. Instead of guiding him through the process, the flustered customer service representative asked him to just ask me, his sighted wife, to take care of the issue. He did, but the experience left a bad taste in our mouths – and no doubt in the mouth of the customer service representative, who failed to provide great customer service simply because they were caught off guard.


I think there are two separate challenges when it comes to customer service for people with disabilities. Firstly, customer service personnel are not properly instructed on how to handle these customers. This is unfortunate, especially since in many cases the products and services a company provides are perfectly accessible, often at great expense to and effort from the company. It’s the law, and an increasing focus among manufacturers. For some inexplicable reason, the accommodations that are made at the design and implementation stage of a product are often insufficiently communicated to the customer service providers – they are not taught about the barriers that might arise specifically for people with disabilities, and how to solve them. Remember that airlines website? It turns out that it is easily navigable with a screen reader. Had the customer service representative been trained on the basics of how access might work for a person with a disability, all of us would have had a better experience.


The second – and to my mind, perhaps greater – issue with customer service is not one of knowledge, but one of communication. Often, customer service people are ill at ease when speaking to a customer with a disability – they realize that they are the face of the company they represent, and are afraid of making a mistake that will negatively influence the customer’s opinion of the company. What many companies attempt to do to alleviate this fear is, in my opinion, precisely the wrong thing: they present customer service representatives with a laundry list of disability etiquette dos and don’ts. I’ve seen some of these lists, and they are impressive – and daunting. In fact, there are often so many rules that a trainee might well emerge from the experience more intimidated by the concept of disability rather than less because there are, according to common etiquette guides, just so many things one might do wrong. Moreover, many of these training modules give the impression that people with disabilities are, on the whole, an incredibly touchy group of folks just waiting to take offense. This is not true – as with any group of people, personal dispositions and communication styles vary. While most people with disabilities wish these etiquette missteps did not occur, and might even take the opportunity to educate others, they are used to them, and have their own strategies to deal with them. Don’t be too intimidated – you are not the first, and will not be the last.


Instead, focus on the principles behind the plethora of rules. Just like anyone, people with disabilities want to be addressed with curtesy, respect, and tact. If customer service representatives just keep that in mind, rather than trying to memorize detailed instructions, they will be much less likely to offend. The reason a person with a disability might take offense is not because a specific rule has been broken, but because they feel that one of these underlying fundamentals has been violated. This is not to say that etiquette guides have no value: they provide guidance about how to translate basic principles into specific communication strategies. But unless one remembers why one is doing what one is told to do, they remain checklists rather than helpful advice. So, my recommendation to customer service representations is this: When you are dealing with a customer with a disability, treat them with respect and curtesy, and respect their autonomy. If you do that, the details will follow.


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