How can businesses improve the service experience for ‘purple pound’ customers?by
In the UK alone, businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of people with disabilities – the ‘purple pound’. How much is attributed to poor customer service that doesn’t meet the demographics’ requirements, and what can we do to improve customer service for those with disabilities?
Over 14 million people live with a disability in the UK. The spending power of the ‘purple pound’ is £274 billion a year.
Despite this, it’s estimated that in the UK alone, businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled customers. And while strides have been made to improve accessibility for disabled people, there remain innumerable societal improvements to be achieved.
According to the Equality Commission, 75% of people are living with ‘hidden’ disabilities. Ranging from dyslexia and epilepsy to aphasia, dyspraxia, cerebral palsy and motor neurone disease, hidden disabilities are often linked to some of the fundamental drivers behind poor customer service and experiences had with businesses.
75% of disabled people and their families have walked away from a UK business because of poor customer service.
Digital experiences also remain a challenge. In a 2020 We Are Purple survey, 73% of disabled respondents stated they experienced barriers on more than a quarter of the websites they visited.
Gavin Neate, the CEO of Neatebox believes many businesses are awakening to the need to improve the accessibility of their digital experiences. Indeed, standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are now driving up web accessibility issues around the globe.
But the physical realm, he says, remains a huge cause for concern – specifically when it comes to customer service.
“When you think about access, it’s often around wheelchair ramps, parking spaces, assisted doors, low light switches, low counters and accessible toilets. It’s easy to get into the mindset of – we’ve built these access points and we’ve ticked those boxes, so we have disability ‘covered’.
“But access isn’t just physical, it’s social. The truth is, you can have the most accessible building in the world, but if, say, your security guard, or your front-of-house staff or customer service reps have only just started in their job, for instance, and perhaps are not up to speed with how to deal with the array of disabilities customers may have; or perhaps they haven’t had adequate training; then there can be many situations where a normal, run of the mill experience can snowball into being a poor one for a disabled customer.”
WelcoMe began life as a GPS-connected smartphone app that allowed users to perform tasks such as pressing buttons for pedestrian crossings or opening automatic doors in advance, via their phones.
There can be many situations where a normal, run of the mill experience can snowball into being a poor one for a disabled customer
The product has now expanded to focus on customer service – allowing people to communicate any special needs or requirements they have before they arrive at a business. Neate believes this simple interaction point could transform the experience many disabled people have with businesses – specifically in areas such as retail stores, restaurants, public transport and leisure facilities, where many people would benefit from being able to prepare their visit with peace in mind that the venues they are visiting are made aware of their needs.
“Every place where you have somebody meeting somewhere you can improve the experience of the disabled person,” he says.
“If you can improve the experience of a disabled person you’re enhancing their capacity to spend with you. So financially it makes sense. But you’re also improving their ability to leave their home. You reduce their anxiety when at home about leaving the house. Right now loneliness is one of the biggest killers in the UK and we’re trying to address loneliness by thinking about the factors for people – especially disabled people – that might be decisive in whether they leave the house and visit a business or venue.”
WelcoMe is now available in a number of businesses, including at Edinburgh airport and a string of Next retail outlets in Scotland. Neate himself was recently named Entrepreneur of Excellence at the recent National Diversity Awards in Liverpool for his work.
It’s easy to get into the mindset of – we’ve built these access points and we’ve ticked those boxes, so we have disability ‘covered’
His ultimate goal, however, is for the technology to become ubiquitous, and believes more awareness should be made for what typically stands in the way of businesses providing better customer service and service experiences to their customers with disabilities.
“Often it can be fear. Fear of cost, fear of getting this wrong. Access makes businesses think ‘physical’ and ‘cost’. Understanding it’s not necessarily about physical and that you can change societal problems fairly easily is an ongoing challenge in this realm.
“Retail is often the example given in relation to experience, but I like to think about industries such as public transport, or healthcare. The idea that a disabled person doesn’t have to explain that they’re deaf, for instance, to a receptionist in a hospital when they arrive is a huge burden off their shoulders.
"Recreation and leisure is a great example too – disabled people typically tend to only go to places they’ve visited before because they already know how they’re going to be interacted with and there’s consistency in the experience. Imagine how much more recreational and leisure participation there might be if people feel reassured about what they’re going to experience, in advance. Given everything that’s happened with Covid forcing everyone indoors over the last 18 months, that’s gamechanging.”
Initiatives such as the Valuable 500 – a pledge signed by CEOs at 500 of the world’s leading commercial organisation to “put disability on their agenda and recognising the value and worth of the 1.3 billion people globally living with a disability” have undoubtedly helped accelerate the conversation around disability and customer service and experience. But Neate believes many business leaders, and indeed, service and CX leaders, can be more proactive.
“The first thing to do is appoint a disability champion in your organisation, or department. Find someone in your business. And secondly, we need to employ more disabled people. We’ll then start to reflect the experiences they have as individuals into the service and experiences delivered as a business.
“We need to think about how we’re personalising and tailoring service to specific needs, but we also need to start thinking about how we allow different segments of our customer base to dictate the service they receive. In honesty, we’ve never really allowed disabled people to dictate the service they receive. It’s always been a case of having service dictated by others.
"That’s not personalised. When people are face to face with customer service representatives they can dictate, but at that point the representative is in service mode rather than learning mode and the opportunity is often lost.
"The interaction and the ability to dictate that interaction needs to happen prior to the point where a disabled person is meeting or visiting a location or venue.”
Chris was an Editor at MyCustomer from 2014 to 2022. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News.