Accessible Customer Service: Tips for Communicating by Phone with People with Cognitive Disabilities

Published November 12, 2020

Accessible customer service on the phone requires trained personnel who can effectively communicate with people with cognitive disability to their complete satisfaction. To begin with, customer service representatives should treat persons with cognitive disability as they would any other customer and not judge or presume what someone may or may not be able to do.

Each individual’s disability or limitations can be unique. So, the focus of the phone operator must be on removing the barriers to communication and not on identifying the nature of the customer’s disability. When you are unsure of what the person on the other end needs, don’t ask, "What disability do you have?" Instead, ask them, "How can I help you today?"

Avoid any special treatment or expressions

Customer service personnel in business should remember that the person with cognitive disability has phoned in for support or inquiry related to some product or service. Focus on addressing their specific concerns without making any comments about their disability.
Do not express your sympathy, and do not try to give them any special treatment such as telling them how courageous or inspiring you think they are. Your special treatment might make them feel singled out, and they are not likely to appreciate it.

How to communicate over the phone

People with cognitive disability can experience a number of difficulties in communication, whether subtle or pronounced. They may take more time to express, receive, or process information from the other end. When the customer is explaining their problem to you over the phone, give them time to finish what they are saying. Do not complete their sentences for them and do not interrupt them when they are speaking.

Once you have the opportunity to answer them, speak clearly, normally, and directly. If you have not understood some part of the customer’s problem, do not try to make a guess or and do not pretend that you have understood. Simply, ask them again. When you are uncertain, you may also rephrase or repeat what you believe the customer said.

If the customer is using a teletypewriter (TTY line) or an interpreter, speak directly to the customer, and not to the interpreter. Do not ask for inputs or opinions from the interpreter. Be ready to explain any operating manual or other guides or materials that are a part of the normal phone-based customer support.

In a situation where you find that the customer is experiencing serious difficulty in speaking or understanding your message, do not abruptly hang up. Ask them about an alternate communication arrangement such as text, email, or online chat. Or, inform them that you will arrange a call-back at a time of their convenience when it is possible to speak with someone else.

Request customer feedback

Most customer service protocols require that the inquiring customer should be given an opportunity to provide their feedback. It is not a commentary on the performance of the customer service rep, but is meant to help improve communication systems and reduce barriers.

Your business might consider following this standard to request feedback from customers. At the same time, a tracking system may be put in place to monitor what follow-up action was taken based on the customer’s feedback.