Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Halloween is a time to come face to face with our fears. What better opportunity to explore how fear impacts customer communication and service?
In this article, we look at how fear limits the fair treatment of customers with disabilities and why fear may cause customers to present negative behaviours.
Fear of Approaching Customers with a Disability
The Paralympics has played an important role in changing attitudes. It shows individuals with a full range of disabilities competing. They are capable, driven, confident and able to overcome adversity. We are also seeing an increased representation of people with disabilities presenting or starring in television programmes.
Despite this, many people still feel fearful about approaching customers with a disability. Back in 2014, research undertaken by Scope revealed that 67% of people felt awkward talking to people with a disability. Their fear of saying the wrong thing, causing offence or coming across as patronising meant that many people actively avoided interacting with individuals, even when it was part of their job.
Imagine going about your daily routine knowing that the shop assistant is avoiding eye contact or the restaurant staff are pretending to be busy with another task so someone else will serve you. Consider how it would feel when two-thirds of the population acted as if you didn’t exist.
How to Approach a Customer with a Disability
According to research by St Andrews University, there are over 10-million people with a disability in the UK. That equates to 18% of the population, so, this is far from a minority group.
In a customer service role, you will likely interact with a person with a disability every working day and you have a responsibility to treat every customer fairly. This means doing all you can to ensure that every customer can access the products and services they need. You cannot pick and choose who you serve.
Being able to communicate effectively and appropriately with all customers is an essential skill. When communicating with customers with a disability, just talk in the same way as you would to anyone else. Look them in the eye, smile and be helpful. If someone is in a wheelchair, sit down if possible, so you are facing them directly.
Be proactive in asking how you can help, but don’t assume that they will need additional help. If they are with another person, speak directly to the person with a disability rather than directing questions to their companion; they are the customer. Listen, ask questions, answer questions and check understanding. In short, do all you can to ensure a positive customer experience.
In some cases, the customer may need information in a different format, assistance with completing an activity or more time to process the options. Make sure you have alternative resources to hand and be patient. Your time and attention are important for customer satisfaction.
Reap the Rewards of Inclusivity
Not only is it the right and proper thing to treat everyone fairly, but it also makes commercial sense. In my article about the Purple Pound, I explain how inclusivity can be a driver for business growth. If your organisation champions inclusivity and gains a reputation for treating people with a disability fairly, you can reap the rewards.
Fear of People with Disabilities
The film industry could be behind the fears of people with disabilities. From Bond to Marvel, Disney to Bollywood, villains are often portrayed with facial deformities, scars and burns or other differences, such as walking with a limp. This fuels an association of bad characters and disability from a young age.
Changing Faces has been campaigning to change this since 2018. Their #IAmNotYourVillain campaign highlight the fact that disabled actors are highly unlikely to be the hero or love interest in a film plot. In response to their campaign, the British Film Industry has made a pledge to no longer fund films with disfigured, burned or scared villains.
This is progress, but the issue isn’t limited to the movies. Businesses also need to consider their representation of people in marketing. Avon is one company that has changed its advertising to include models with visible disabilities, as part of the Pledge to be Seen campaign. Do your promotional materials include disabled staff or customers?
People with disabilities are just like you and me; trying to go about their day and get things done. As you strike up conversations with people with disabilities, you’ll realise they are no more scary or difficult than any other member of the public. There is nothing to fear and plenty to be gained from engaging in conversation.
If you are among the 67% who have avoided interactions with people with disabilities, it is time to face your fear. Step up and make a positive difference.
Understanding Fearful Customers
Now we’ll look at fear from a different perspective and how it can impact a customer’s actions and behaviours.
As a customer approaches your organisation, they may be fearful that you’ll ask them to access an App or complete a complex form. They could be worried about having the right information or documentation at hand, or that they will be refused a product or service due to their lived experiences. Their concerns could stem from fearing they will be pulled up on not following the right procedure. Or, they could simply have a fear of your profession or industry, a dentist or insurance company for example.
When filled with trepidation, the body is in fight or flight mode. Their actions and behaviours may seem defensive and aggressive. They are expecting the worse and ready to fight their corner. Alternatively, they may just want to get away as quickly as possible. Leaving the building or putting the phone down partway through the conversation.
If you serve someone who is angry and blunt, or who leaves mid-sentence, your immediate thoughts are likely to be that they are rude. Consider for a moment that their behaviour was driven by fear. Does this help you to show more empathy?
Managing Difficult Conversations
We all prefer conversations where both parties are positive and respectful, but it is also useful to know how to handle difficult conversations. Imagine that the individual is scared, how you act and respond can turn things around.
By remaining calm, positive and solutions-focused, you can help to dissipate negative emotions. Ask how you can help, ask questions to clarify understanding and then clearly inform the customer about what you can do.
If they are abrupt or disrespectful, be assertive, but not aggressive. Let them know that they are coming across as rude and that it is making it more difficult for you to do your job. If their emotions are out of control, this might be the first time they realise their behaviour and it can be enough to calm things down. Then refocus on how you can assist.
Remain in control of your emotions and responses and you stand the best chance of moving things forward in a professional manner. If they are fearful, your actions can provide reassurance; you are there to assist, not make things difficult for them.
Finally, if you see a pattern – customers regularly facing difficulties with a particular process or not understanding information, what could be done to alleviate the issue? If resources are channelled into overcoming a barrier, there could be less need for customer-facing staff to have difficult conversations.
Fear is a natural emotion, but it can hinder us from achieving positive outcomes. This Halloween, let’s take control of our fears rather than letting them control us.