Tips to help you deliver empathetic service to customers with disabilities

It’s human instinct to assume the people you interact with are similar to yourself regarding abilities, life experiences, etc. However, customer service agents must serve all customers, even those who have different circumstances and needs in ways an agent might not fully understand.

This can include people with disabilities. It’s likely your agents will encounter customers who are blind, hard of hearing or deaf, and those who struggle with ambulatory or cognitive disabilities among other challenges. The most important thing to remember is empathy should be at the heart of all interactions and it’s crucial to ask the customer how you can assist them rather than making assumptions.

“When it comes to customer service for people with disabilities, there are certain subtleties that can really make a difference in how you make a customer feel. Simply being aware of them, and maybe making slight alterations in how you do things, can really elevate the service that you offer and leave a great lasting impression on your customers.”[1]

Building an understanding of different lived experiences will ideally improve empathy and reduce barriers during customer and agent interactions. Ultimately, this will help build successful customer relationships.

Proactively preparing to serve customers with disabilities is not only the compassionate thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. According to Monsido, 56.7 million people in the U.S., 80 million in the European Union, and 20% of Australians identify as being disabled. If you are prepared to serve these segments of the population, it will give you a competitive advantage and increase customer satisfaction and advocacy.

The best way to understand this perspective is to hear directly from customers who live with a disability. We asked a few people with a disability what they wish contact centers knew about how to serve them better. We will discuss how to deliver the best self-service options, communicate effectively, employ agent soft skills, and provide the most efficient digital journey.

Offer a variety of self-service options for maximum CX

Like the majority of customers today, a person with a disability is likely to prefer self-service. In fact, one customer we spoke with wants customer service leaders to know she’s fiercely independent and doesn’t need special treatment. In her words, “don’t help me unless I ask for help.” However, she did say it’s okay to ask her if she needs help, but just don’t make assumptions.

When it comes to self-service preferences there is no one-size-fits-all option. Take for example a customer with advanced ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) who is completely paralyzed except for the ability to use their eyes.

This customer cannot speak with an agent or use voice interaction artificial intelligence (AI). For support, they use self-service, chat, or email, since the customer can only communicate by typing out responses using only their eyes.

Having an accessible chat feature can be especially important—especially for keyboard-only users. Ensure your bot is detectable by Screen Reader software and keyboard-only users. Keep in mind some users need more time to type up the responses. Many chat features time out too quickly to serve these customers. You can use virtual agent software to ask the customer if they need more time before disconnecting.

Lengthy self-service menus can be difficult to navigate for nearly everyone, but this is especially true for customers with disabilities. It’s important to streamline the self-service process as much as possible so it’s easy for customers to self-solve and find the information they are seeking.

Having a comprehensive AI-powered solution can ensure you provide proactive service on the customer’s channel of choice. Engaging customers in proactive conversation at just the right moment in their journey makes their experience feel effortless.

Additionally, AI routing can predict and deliver the best match and outcome for each customer with a disability to improve their experience with each interaction. And a smart self-service AI tool can harness data from conversational intelligence to build digital channels that can better serve customers.

These can include conversational self-service AI that delivers frictionless engagements—from simple requests to complex conversations. And virtual assistant AI can serve customers around the clock via any channel they choose.

Focus on agent soft skills

Many customers will still want to interact with a human or will need to be in touch to resolve more complex issues. All customers require patience and empathy, and at times, customers with unique needs such as disabilities will require more care and attention. When empathy and communication are of utmost importance is truly where agent soft skills come into play.

Including these soft skills training in all onboarding and continuing to reinforce and provide examples in coaching and everboarding goes a long way toward being a welcoming and inclusive customer service organization.

Agents must be able to engage empathetically with customers and seek to understand their points of view and unique needs. They need to be flexible and prepared to provide personalized service for unique customer requirements.

Active listening including verbal and written text as well as strong problem-solving skills are crucial when it comes to serving customers with disabilities. Agents should move at the customer’s pace and allow them to take their time articulating their needs and responses.

Also, keep in mind that an agent should speak normally unless a customer asks them to speak up or slow down. A common pitfall when communicating with a person who has a disability is to automatically start speaking loudly and slowly. People may not even realize they’re doing it, and it’s patronizing and offensive.

It’s also important to have up-to-date technology that enables the agent to communicate clearly with customers. A good performance management tool will help agents interact more effectively with customers with disabilities by delivering more transparency and continuous feedback.

Using AI-powered coaching technology and real-time interaction guidance, you can alert agents to the next best action and response when dealing with customers with a disability. Some tools have real-time pop-ups to guide the agent to be more empathetic. These can alert agents to the customer’s sentiment score to cue them to be more compassionate. They can also help agents find solutions fast by being able to see what customers have searched for in the past as well as suggesting solutions.

Most importantly, the agent needs access to full customer preferences and history so they can quickly and effectively help them. A knowledge management (KM) framework provides instant access to the information your agents need in order to communicate clearly with the customer.

Get more tips on how to improve agent soft skills in your contact center with this eBook

Improve customer experience with clear communication

If a customer self-identifies as disabled, it’s okay to ask questions including what type of accommodations they might need. That’s much more empathetic than avoiding the topic and making the situation uncomfortable. A best practice is to never assume you know what a customer needs. In most cases, it's best to ask them if you're unsure.

When we spoke with one disabled person, they said they believe it’s their responsibility to communicate what they need. However, everyone is different. That’s why having access to customer history and providing personalized service is so important. It assures customers of your inclusivity and that you care about their needs above all else.

CRM integration software helps agents understand their customers on a deeper level by seeing their full history and preferences. Omnichannel software enables your agents to personalize each interaction with an easy-to-use, consolidated interface for handling all interaction channels.

96% of customers expect companies to make their interaction easy without the need to repeat information[2]

If an agent inadvertently offends a person with a disability, it’s best for the agent to apologize and ask the customer what they wish the agent had done differently. This can be an important customer service teaching moment. Real-time interaction guidance can help agents turn this negative experience around.

Invest in a solid UI/UX website design

If a website is difficult to navigate for the average person, imagine how painful that process could be for someone with advanced ALS. There might be certain processes put in place for security purposes that seem like a good idea, but they could end up causing too much friction for a customer with a disability.

Employing a solid user interaction and user experience (UI/UX) design can help you identify and eliminate areas of friction. It’s not only a compassionate approach to service, but the ADA also requires all public businesses to ensure every program, service, and good they provide—including those provided online—are accessible to people with disabilities.[3]

However, it also makes good business sense. Research by UsableNet shows that people with disabilities spend a half-trillion dollars annually.

Organizations that use technology to revamp CX can increase customer satisfaction by 15% to 20%, reduce cost of service by 20 to 40% and boost conversion rates and growth by 20%[4]

For example, consider the common process of requiring users to upgrade their accounts. The process often involves sending a code to a mobile phone in order to complete the upgrade. This makes the process impossible for someone who can’t use a mobile phone, such as our customer with ALS. They are not able to operate a mobile phone or a landline.

An agent can save the day by providing empathetic service rather than regurgitating the required steps. In this case, the customer understands the upgrade process. But the customer cannot use the upgrade process and they need a different option. Once again, it’s important to ask questions, listen, and understand the customer’s perspective so you can help them find a solution that works.

At the end of the day, customers with disabilities want what everyone wants—self-service that requires little effort and little, if any, friction. Delivering one-and-done support is the best way to serve any customer, whether they have disabilities or not.

Quick Tips for Better Communication

  1. Offer multiple options for all customers—chat, phone, and email are a must.
  2. Apply empathy and understanding but don’t make assumptions. If something isn’t clear, ask questions to ensure understanding.
  3. Be patient if the customer takes longer to respond. Don’t try to finish sentences or jump in before the customer is finished speaking or typing. Never penalize employees for taking extra time to offer extra support.
  4. Always be respectful—check pity or prejudice at the door—watch language that could be offensive.
  5. Employ people with disabilities but don’t segment them or your customers with disabilities—all employees will benefit from learning and understanding (Invite someone as a guest speaker during training. Ask employees if they know someone or even live with someone who has a disability.)
  6. Ensure you have customer-facing knowledge articles as well as internal-facing articles that provide details about the services you provide for customers with disabilities.

Learn more about how to operate an empathetic contact center with this eBook.

[1] Deque: Customer service for people with disabilities (2020)
[2] NICE CXone: Customer Experience (CX) Transformation Benchmark (2020)
[3] ADA: Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA (2022)
[4] McKinsey: Service industries can fuel growth by making digital customer experiences a priority (2020)