How much do you really understand your customers’ needs?

When it comes to customers with any form of impairment the answer is most likely not enough

As my previous articles on accessibility have shown, the experience for a customer who doesn’t fit the “norm” of being a walking, intelligent person in possession of all five senses is typically a lot worse than it is for those who do. A conversation the other day made me realise that businesses don’t make sufficient effort to understand the needs of all their customers and therefore there is a significant business opportunity for those who do.

Say again?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss and that by 2050 over 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss – one in ten of the world’s population. That’s a cause for concern, particularly as much of it is preventable but, whatever the cause, it doesn’t take away the fact that this is going to be an increasing challenge for up to 10% of any business’s customers.

I was pleased to discover that one specialist company – SigncodeUK – has developed a simple-to-use product that has the potential to make life easier for the profoundly deaf. With Signcode, messages can be conveyed via video: all the customer has to do is scan a QR code showing the SigncodeUK logo and a video appears on the customer’s phone with the message relayed in British Sign Language (BSL).

Courtesy of SigncodeUK

Now you may be thinking “that’s all well and good, but surely most people can read the information anyway?” – good question but missing the point. For people who are profoundly deaf, BSL is their first language – not surprising if you think about how a young deaf child will learn to communicate (they won’t learn to read English first).

When Signcode’s Jeff Earl told me this I was surprised – but then I had a flashback to a scene from years back where I noticed two teenage girls on the street laughing like mad with each other but not saying anything. I then noticed they were rapidly signing to each other, and I remember thinking that it of course was obvious that that’s how deaf people would tell each other jokes – it was something that I’d never had to think about.

You may now be thinking “that’s never occurred to me either, but how many people do you think this affects?” The answer is that, in the UK around 50,000 people have BSL as their first language – less than 0.1% of population, although about the same number who speak Gaelic and not much less than the c130,000 who speak Welsh as a first language at home. In fact, as Jeff Earl points out, the number of deaf people may be under-recorded  as health organisations (hospitals, GPs and Adult Services etc) did not have to register deaf people unless they ticked the disabled box. This has led to the numbers looking on the low side as the majority of deaf people (culturally and linguistically deaf ) do not consider themselves disabled.

A tiny percentage of anyone’s customer base then. So why bother?

Health warning: the following section may be offensive to statisticians

Whether we succeeded at mastering maths at school or still remain baffled by the simplest equation, we are bombarded with statistics every day, typically to tell us things like, flying is incredibly safe or that you are more likely to die from a collapsing sandcastle than a shark attack.

We’re conditioned to accept the idea of “the norm”, the middle of the Bell Curve (“normal distribution” for the statisticians amongst us) and I think this permeates our idea of customer service and customer experience where we tend to design around an idealised view of the customer – how we would like them to be rather than how they actually are.

Now, I’m not arguing that anyone’s customer base doesn’t have a normal or typical customer – it makes sense to design your products and services around what most people would do – but I’m more interested in what you do for those in the margins, as that’s where competitive advantage lies.

The bell curve below shows, conveniently, that 0.1% of your customer population lies 3 standard deviations from the norm so in a customer population measured for hearing ability, that’s where you would find your BSL first language population. So why cater for such a small sample?

Source: Chris53516 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The answer is that what you do for a small percentage has a knock-on effect on the whole customer population because it shows the 99.9% of your customers that don’t use BSL that you want to be inclusive, that you’re taking pains to customise your offering to those customers who do.

Extra miles (or inches)

I don’t much care for the expression “going the extra mile” in relation to customer service – sometimes an extra inch or two may be enough – but providing inclusive services will distinguish your business from the competition.

The good news is that there’s plenty of opportunity to do this and cater for people who lie closer to the centre of the bell curve – the 2% of the population with some form of dementia for example.

In my experience of implementing strategies to improve services for these “vulnerable” customers, the key to success is to embed the level of awareness in the organisation’s culture. You don’t need to dig too deep in any group of people to find individuals who – often with a passion born of personal experience – want to step up and lead the way in spreading awareness and improving services to all customers.

Very often those people aren’t in senior roles but they’re the ones who, day in and day out, make great service happen. Allowing those people to flourish is the hallmark of great customer service leaders.

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