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Chris Jay- the Executive Chairman of disability awareness charity, Enable Me discusses the underestimated power of the purple pound, and explains how making simple adjustments can help your customer service be more accessible… 

If I was to tell you that your business is failing to engage with 20% of the population, I’m sure you’d be intrigued to learn more. If I was to then tell you, that ignoring the needs of this customer base costs UK businesses around £1.8 billion[1] per month, well, if I didn’t have your attention earlier, I’m sure I have it now.

The customer group in question is of course, people with disabilities, a vast number of British consumers that account for an enormous segment of our population. However, despite the power of the ‘purple pound’, it seems businesses are still failing to see the benefits of providing accessible customer service.

According to a study undertaken by the Extra Costs Commission[2], 75% of disabled people and their families say they have left a shop or other business because it failed to meet their needs.

When you take into consideration that disabled people have spending power of £212 billion a year- this begs the question- why?

One of the biggest reasons is of course, a lack of awareness. A huge number of businesses simply aren’t aware of the economic benefits accessible customer service can bring, and how it can be achieved. The truth is, making adjustments is easier than you imagine- and by making a few simple changes to accommodate people with disabilities – most businesses will see immediate benefits.

Staff training

It is highly likely that a customer’s first experience of your organisation will involve your customer service workforce, so it is critical that these staff members are trained to be disability aware. You may think that your staff are a friendly, considerate bunch, and therefore won’t need any training. However, you may also be surprised to learn that a recent Scope survey revealed that 67% of the British public actually ‘feel uncomfortable’ when talking to people with disabilities and ‘awkward’ about being patronising or saying the wrong thing.

Of course, disability awareness training should not be limited to customer facing staff- it should also be rolled out at all levels, including senior staff members and directors, so the message that disability is understood throughout the entire organisation, is clear. Training should cover all of the essentials such as etiquette, the appropriate use of language, methods of communication, perceptions and barriers around disability.

This training will empower your workforce with a greater sense of empathy and will also encourage them to understand the needs of other people. Your business will then begin to appeal to a wider group of customers- (and talented employees) and, furthermore, you will proudly reap the reward of positive publicity, when you declare your dedication to becoming a fully inclusive organisation.

Understanding barriers

Having an organisational awareness of disability will mean you are closer to understanding the barriers your customers face. These will of course, go beyond the physical challenges that may exist, and will also include barriers such as communication, accessing information and being stereotyped. Once you identify the barriers specific to your customers, you can begin to put plans in place to bring these barriers down.

Physical adjustments

If your customers need physical access to your place of business, (and you haven’t already audited it) consider all the physical challenges it poses immediately. Consider getting a wheel chair in and out of all areas that need to be accessed, look at fire exits and adding permanent or removable ramps, (remember, everyone can use a ramp – and they are also very welcoming to customers with prams!). Provide seats if queuing is likely, and consider external access challenges and ease of parking. Clear, easily read signs in simple lettering are good for all, and don’t forget to offer alternative reading materials in accessible formats.  Most importantly, keep improving your space as you go along. Your customers will recognise that your brand is fully accessible, and their loyalty to it will grow.

Technological adjustments

Accessibility is not just about physical limitations; it is also about the technological aspects of customer experience. Make sure your website can be read and navigated in a number of different formats to accommodate as many different disabilities as possible. Add accessible features such as a large print availability, dyslexia friendly options, plain text versions and enhance readability, so it can be viewed on all different devices and screen sizes. Consider the ‘special offers’ you provide online and remember that those using a screen reader will not be able to take advantage of these if they only exist as a complicated graphic.

If you have automated phone systems remember that those with vocal limitations or loss of hearing may find these to be a huge barrier when they contact you- especially if you have interactive voice response systems, so ensure alternatives are available.

Avoiding assumptions

When it comes to customer service, assumption is the mother of all mistakes. Staff disability awareness training should focus on helping your workforce to avoid making any assumptions or stereotypes. Out of the UK’s 13 million disabled people, it is estimated that only 8% are wheelchair users and an even smaller percentage have visible evidence of their impairment, (such as assistance dogs or mobility aids). This means that the vast majority of disabilities are actually ‘hidden’ or unable to be visually identified.

So, rather than jumping to any conclusions about whether an individual does or doesn’t have a disability, it is a far better option to make it explicitly clear that you openly cater for all customers- and that accessibility is key to your brand.

Enable Me is a unique user led disability awareness charity in the UK- meaning all staff members have a disability. Enable Me provides disability awareness training in the hospitality industry, in business environments, universities and schools.

[1]Business Disability Forum- Walkaway Pound Report  2015

[2] https://www.scope.org.uk/get-involved/campaigns/extra-costs-commission

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