Six Customer Service Training Tips for Serving People with Cognitive Disabilities

Published October 12, 2020

Creating a cultural shift in a business is often a challenging process. In order for any business to remain successful for any duration, it must continually align itself with modern standards of service for its customers. One area in which a culture shift is needed in many businesses is the ways in which its customer service department relates to individuals with a wide variety of abilities, needs, and challenges. Specifically, as it relates to individuals with cognitive delays or intellectual disabilities, customer service needs to be reinvented. The following tips are designed to be communicated explicitly to employees in simple, actionable ways.

Tip 1: Use 'people first' language

A shift in customer service begins with teaching employees how to view customers. It is important that all employees see all customers as worthy of the same level of service and learn to value the differences that make customers unique. The vocabulary with which an employee is trained will be the basis for how the employee sees the customer.

According to Shari Andress, National Education Coordinator for GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers, "People first language gets rid of the old custom of identifying people by their challenges, rather than their humanity." People first language acknowledges the fundamental personhood of every individual, and then notes any special needs that the individual might have. For example, employees should be taught to think in this way: People First = Person’s Name + formal diagnosis. So, an employee would be taught to think, "Susie has Down Syndrome," and NEVER, "Susie is a Downs person." Getting employees to think of individuals as individuals, rather than as a collection of abilities or disabilities, will change how employees interact with customers.

Tip 2: See the ability, not the disability

As part of the training for employees, the employer must consider that all people, regardless of needs or challenges, are potential clients, and must be treated in a way commensurate with that status. Employees must be trained to see the ability of an individual customer, rather than any disabilities a person might have.

According to Nancy Gianni, Creator and Chief Belief Officer of GiGi’s Playhouse, in "How I Learn" (video), "Don’t step in and help." Regardless of whether an employee believes a customer might need extra help, that employee should not attempt to offer extra help simply because the customer might appear to have extra needs. Instead, employees should be trained to see that every customer has a unique set of skills and talents, and to find ways to help customers do for themselves everything they are capable of doing. This will not replace the standard, "Hi, may I help you?," but instead will help employees acknowledge the differences that make customers unique.

Employees need to be taught to set high expectations for customers, and to start assuming that all customers are capable of typical business interactions. Once an employee recognizes this simple truth, customer service becomes entirely about accessibility, not individual abilities.

Tip 3: Use clear and concise language

Customer service employees need to be trained to recognize that their own personal grammar and syntax may fall outside of that used customarily by individuals in a business environment. That is to say that employees need to be taught that using slang, or sarcasm, or even metaphoric or hyperbolic language when dealing with customers is not appropriate. This can be especially true if a customer has an intellectual disability or cognitive delay. Interactions with customers need to be clear and concise, and laid out in such a way that regardless of the customer’s abilities or disabilities, the verbal interaction will be accessible to the customer.

In general, the use of professional, and clear, language should be the preferred method of communicating with all customers, but this becomes especially important if a customer has extra needs that make tasks such as communicating effectively a challenge.

Many people find that clear, orderly instructions are the most helpful when navigating new situations. And since this rule applies to all potential clients, employees should be trained to use the most specific, concise, and direct language possible when interacting with any customer.

Tip 4: Use a multi-sensory approach to communications

Effective communication is nothing more than a speaker finding a way to connect with an audience. This is an important lesson for employees to learn because people have a wide variety of learning and communication styles. For customers who have intellectual disabilities or cognitive delays, the spoken word may not be the most effective means of communication. According to Dr. Haig Kouyoumdjian in his article "Learning Through Visuals" in Psychology Today, "Words are abstract and rather difficult for the brain to retain, whereas visuals are concrete and, as such, more easily remembered." Employees need training to practice turning the spoken word into a multi-sensory communication that incorporates visuals wherever possible.

It is worth remember that this training will not only benefit customers that might have communications challenges, but will also benefit all customers, and turn employees into communications specialists who can reach any customer to help with the sales experience.

Tip 5: Give the customer time to process information

In many sales environments, the speed at which customers can be 'processed' can have an impact on overall sales. The problem with this method, however, is that it does not acknowledge the fact that all people, regardless of ability or need, processes information at a different rate than the person standing next to them. In short, customer service often fails to account for the time it takes all customers to process whatever information is needed to continue the interaction.

It is important for customer service employees to be aware that processing information can take time, and that the employee should not try to rush a customer who is processing new information. According to "How I Learn" (video), "Individuals…have to work harder to retrieve information that is stored. After asking a question, allow time for information to be processed and a response to be generated. Repeating the question resets the timer on the process so limit the amount of times the question is asked."

Rather than rush a customer to make decisions based on unprocessed information, employees can be trained to wait patiently for a customer to be ready to respond.

Tip 6: Remember all people are people

Customers, regardless of ability or challenges or any other concern are just that: customers. Employees need to be coached to remember that all customers have value, because of, not in spite of, their differences. Customer service needs to be designed to create loyal customers, period. When employees learn to recognize differences in customers and to value those differences, the culture of service will permeate the business, and all customers will be welcomed because of their value to the business. By creating an environment where individuals with cognitive delays or intellectual disabilities can thrive during their commercial interactions, a business opens itself up to both new and repeat business. Word of mouth advertising by satisfied customers can transform a business and open it to a largely untapped market.

Train employees to remember that people are people, and that business is business. Train employees to treat every sale as important, so that employees take their roles seriously. Doing so will provide both customer and company with mutually satisfactory exchanges.

While changing the culture of a business is never easy, it is important, and can make an impact far beyond any single commercial interaction. When a business is known for the care it takes with all customers, that business opens itself to the benefits of having a broad, diverse clientele. Businesses like these tend to become bastions of inclusion and accessibility, and therefore pick up a larger market share than may have otherwise been possible.

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