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Communicating When Communication is a Challenge

Any customer service manual or training will emphasise the importance of effective communication. It will encourage staff to engage in conversation with customers at every opportunity and to actively listen to the customer when they are speaking. However, what happens if the customer isn’t able to engage in conversation?

The Importance of Communication

We have all chosen to visit certain shops or buy from specific brands because they take an interest. They have taken the time to have a conversation or have kept us informed of order progress. They provided us with valuable information or responded promptly when we faced an issue.

Communication is central to the customer experience. It helps to build relationships, ensure the customer gets a product or service to best meet their needs and gather feedback. It helps set expectations and informs continuous improvement.

In some customer service roles, a script might be used to guide the conversation, in other cases, the interaction is natural and responsive. However, no matter how much preparation, personality or experience you have, communication is a two-way process. Progress depends on a response.

If you ask a customer a question in person, over the phone or via email, you expect a response. When faced with silence, you might repeat what you said, assuming they hadn’t heard. When silence, a nod or a one-word answer is the reply, you might consider the person rude or evasive, but what if this isn’t the case?

Communication Difficulties

Many people suffer from conditions that affect their ability to communicate. As with any vulnerability, this can be:

  • Temporary – a throat infection or a mouth numbed for a dental procedure

  • Permanent – cognitive disorders or hearing loss

The person may hear and understand you, but not be able to respond due to:

  • Muteness – not speaking

  • Apraxia – a delay or block to the neural pathway between the brain and speech muscles

  • Dysarthria – nerve-muscle damage common for people with Cerebral Palsy or following a stroke

The person may hear and understand you, but not want to respond because they:

  • Have a stammer or other speech impediment that they don’t want to reveal

  • Lack confidence in the situation, possibly through inexperience

  • Fear sounding stupid, possibly because words used are complex or industry jargon

They may hear you or read the information you provide, but not understand, for example:

  • Alzheimer’s – a condition affecting memory and thought processing

  • Refugees – English is a foreign language that they can’t yet translate

  • People unfamiliar with technology and the process you’ve asked them to follow

They may not be able to hear or understand you because of:

  • Deafness – unable to hear, but may be able to lip-read if you face them during a conversation

  • Autism – not being attuned to words, tone, and body language, possibly facing a sensory overload

Finding Ways to Enable Communication

So, there could be many reasons for a lack of response. Whilst this can make communication more challenging, it shouldn’t be the end of your interaction.

That customer is still looking to you to provide them with what they need. Your job is to find a way of enabling communication.

  • A pen and paper would enable them to write down what they want or you to write down the information they need or offer to send information via email

  • A customer might be able to point to what they want and use gestures to explain

  • Your organisation might provide written information in different languages or have a bilingual member of staff

  • Assisted technology can be used to provide information in formats that the customer understands

  • Simply using plain English and looking people in the eye during conversation can be sufficient

If your organisation regularly serves people with a condition that affects communication, such as Alzheimer’s, Autism or hearing loss, you might want to offer training to build awareness and skills.

Autism Awareness

As Saturday (2 April) was World Autism Awareness Day, I’ll focus on understanding and supporting customers with autism.

  1. Visit Autism Together and watch their Autism Sensory Experience video. This provides some insight into how someone with autism might experience an everyday environment.

  2. Find out about how supermarkets responded to autistic shoppers’ needs by offering Quieter Hours

  3. Read how Lloyds Bank became Autism-Friendly in 2019

  4. Discuss how your organisation could improve customer service by understanding and responding to the needs of autistic customers

Communication Matters

In summary, communication is essential in customer service, yet one approach is not going to be appropriate for all customers. Consider the options, so that your team have the knowledge and resources to adapt to different communication needs.

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