Enhance the Service Experience of Your Untapped Customer Base: People with Disabilities by Jennifer Janechek

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* October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To honor this, many of the Sound Wisdom blog articles this month are meant to educate about disability-related employment issues and celebrate the diverse contributions brought to the workplace by employees with disabilities.  

The sixth Convenience Principle in Shep Hyken’s new book, The Convenience Revolution, is Access. This principle is about “removing unnecessary friction from the typical customer’s day.” According to Hyken, the three factors that contribute to it are availabilitycommunication, and location

A large and growing percentage of the population has a disability, and these customers contribute greatly to the economy. However, many businesses do not make an effort to be accessible to customers with disabilities, which, on top of being unethical, can be really detrimental to their company. It’s important to consider how your business—and the businesses you support—make themselves accessible to their customers who have disabilities, whether visible or invisible, physical or mental. Using the three components of Access that Hyken mentions in his book as a framework for this discussion, let’s reflect on the various ways that companies can enrich (or harm) the customer experience of people with disabilities. 

Location 

Your company’s physical environment is likely the first thing that comes to mind when you think of access, and it is certainly a very important aspect of the customer experience of people with disabilities. Because there are such a wide variety of disabilities—from mobility impairments to visual impairments, chronic illnesses to psychological and cognitive disabilities—it’s important to utilize universal design principles as much as possible in the construction of your space. “Universal design” simply means structuring your place of business in such a way as to cater to the widest range of customers possible. According to this article in Forbes, two ways to enhance access for people with disabilities in terms of location include (1) having ramps and keeping them well maintained and (2) using “universal access” levers instead of round doorknobs for your entry/egress doors, restroom doors, and as many other doors as possible. The US government recommends that business owners who aren’t able to make the physical location of their company accessible (as in cases where a ramp isn’t feasible or is cost prohibitive) offer an alternative means of access, e.g., curb-side or home delivery for restaurants and dry cleaners, home or alternate meeting locations for appointments with a lawyer or an accountant. It’s also important to be sensitive to people with allergies, autism, and other sensory sensitivities. Unless you own a candle or perfume store, avoid strong-smelling scents (I’m looking at you, Abercrombie & Fitch). Keep sound levels to a minimum, and be cognizant of how lights, media, and other stimuli might affect customers differently. 

Communication 

Are your customers with visual and/or auditory disabilities able to reach out to you online? According to the US government, “Under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], businesses are expected to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, or speech disabilities, and are responsible for taking the steps that are needed for effective communication.” But how many companies actually do this? The Forbes article mentioned earlier recommends making sure any CAPTCHAs (“Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) have a (good) audio alternative for blind customers, designing customer service channels in such a way that gives alternatives to IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems) for those who can’t interact with them effectively, and ensuring that your website isn’t too graphics heavy, which can make a website unreadable for those with visual impairments who use screen-reading technology. And all images should have readable alt tags that give a clear description of them. 

Availability 

Are you able to meet the needs of your customers by providing hours of operation or communication (for online customer service experiences) that are accessible for the widest range of customers possible? Some people with disabilities rely on a family member, friend, or caretaker to assist them with their purchasing: Are your business hours conducive to those who might need to shop, go to the bank, etc., after the “normal” 9-to-5 workday is over? Do you have long wait times on your customer service channels that might deter neurodiverse customers from getting the answers or help they need? These are important questions to consider. 

Remember, accessibility isn’t just about the physical environment. Social barriers (including the attitudes of employees) can hinder people with disabilities from patronizing your establishment. I encourage you to reflect on how you might make your business more universally accessible to both your customers and your employees. 

How might you make your business more accessible to customers with disabilities? What businesses do you know of that excel in this area? Comment below to share!

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Looking for more tips? Check out this course from the US government on “Reaching Out to Customers with Disabilities” or this Canadian guide on serving customers with disabilities. And be sure to pick up a copy of Shep Hyken’s The Convenience Revolution: How to Deliver a Customer Service Experience That Disrupts the Competition & Creates Fierce Loyalty, available now at AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-a-Million800-CEO-READ, and many other fine retailers.