What Customers Using AAC Can Teach Businesses about Customer Service

Published March 23, 2021

Most businesses tend to think of sales and marketing as their primary focuses. That’s understandable, as making a sale is the point at which actual money flows into the business. In addition to sales and marketing, other areas of focus for many businesses include product development, content marketing, and social media presence.

One of the last things most business owners seem to think about is customer service. This is a mistake. In many ways, great customer service actually drives the company’s success in all other areas. For example, customer service:

  • Makes sales easier by walking customers through the sales process in a friendly and helpful way;
  • Is a key aspect of a company’s social media presence, interacting with customers in real time as they share their questions and concerns; and,
  • Is a form of marketing in itself, as what customers "buy" isn’t only a company’s product or service, but the total experience they get when interacting with the company.

So, yes, high-quality customer service is crucial to the success of any business.

That being said, not all customer service situations are equal. While most companies can handle the typical customer interaction without much problem, some customers require extra attention.

For example, when a customer isn’t merely disappointed or unhappy with your product or service but has crossed over into "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" territory. Or when a customer has had a bad experience with your company and is now on your Facebook page, telling everyone who will listen just how incompetent you are. These are the kinds of situations when the quality of your customer service training is tested.

Another situation in which the quality of your customer service may be tested is in working with people who rely on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to communicate. No, these situations aren’t as challenging as the "mad as hell" or "social media saboteur" examples above, but these customer service encounters are exceptional enough to present their own kind of challenge, and how a company serves its exceptional customers says a lot about its commitment to great customer support.

Let’s first take a look at the main reasons a business should invest in high-quality customer service for all customers, and then we’ll examine more specifically what companies can learn about their customer service practices from those using AAC.

Why customer service is important: 5 reasons businesses should invest in high-quality customer service

On a generic level, all companies can benefit from investing time and money into their customer service training programs. Why would such a commitment pay off? Here are five reasons:

  1. Customers Expect High Quality Service: It should go without saying that we all expect to be treated well when interacting with a retail or service business. It’s just common decency. But in recent years, customers have become even more demanding. According to research by Salesforce, "Seventy-two percent of consumers…say they expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, while 66% of consumers say they’re likely to switch brands if they feel treated like a number, not an individual."
  2. Repeat Customers Will Spend More Money with Your Company: Research shows that it’s cheaper to keep current customers happy than to find new customers. A repeat customer spends, on average, 67% more with your company than a one-time customer, according to Bain & Company (PDF).
  3. Customer Service Grows Customer Lifetime Value: Not only does a happy customer spend more with your company in the short term, but their long-term monetary value to you is also greater.
  4. Happy Customers Refer Others: In fact, in a recent survey, 77% of people surveyed said that they have shared with others (by telling a friend, sending a positive e-mail, writing a complimentary post on the company’s social media site, etc.) a positive brand experience they have had with a company.
  5. Excellent Customer Service is a Competitive Advantage: Great customer service can set you apart from your competitors. In fact, 60% of customers say that they have stopped doing business with a company after one poor service experience, and other research shows that 67% of this loss of customers can be avoided if the customer’s problem is solved during the first interaction. If your competitor doesn’t do as good a job as you in this area, its customers will soon be your customers.

Augmentative and alternative communication and customer service

It’s clear from the statistics above that providing great customer service is a winning strategy, no matter who your customers are. But doing so in uncommon situations is even more important. For example, if your customer relies on an AAC device to communicate, his or her interactions with businesses are likely to be challenging. Imagine if your customer service staff does an amazing job of taking care of this customer’s needs. You’re likely to have a customer (and fan) for life.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, "Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) describes multiple ways to communicate that can supplement or compensate (either temporarily or permanently) for the impairment and disability patterns of individuals with severe expressive communication disorders." The methods used might include unspoken modes such as gestures and facial expressions or American Sign Language or might include a picture-based system or speech generating device. It all depends on the needs and abilities of the individual.

And if you’re wondering just how large this group is, think about this: by recent estimates, well over 2 million persons present with significant expressive language impairment and use AAC to communicate. That’s no small demographic! Clearly, it would be in any business’s best interests to make sure its customer service employees are prepared to meet the needs of this group.

7 steps to a great customer service experience for people using AAC

So how, exactly, does a company provide a great customer service experience for someone using AAC? Here are seven to-do’s that your customer service people should follow, and that should be present in your training program:

  1. Be Respectful. People who use AAC are just like anyone else—except for their method of communication. Don’t assume lack of intelligence and limit topics of discussion just because they use AAC. The key is to communicate with the person, not the device. Use all of your usual eye contact, body language, and speech.
  2. Be Patient. This can be difficult for some people, as they’re used to conversations moving at a certain speed. With AAC, the speed of the interaction can slow down greatly, so the customer service person must be willing to take the time necessary to serve the customer—no matter how long it takes.
  3. Be Flexible. The customer service person must be mindful that technology is imperfect and doesn’t always work properly. An interaction that may take twice as long in the best of circumstances might take even longer if the technology has problems. In such situations, it might be necessary to look for an alternative way to communicate.
  4. Be Discreet. Many people using AAC use a device—for example, a tablet—to communicate. Many use their devices for things other than communication, like texting, email, banking, etc. So, customer service people should respect screen privacy, unless they’re invited to look.
  5. Be Focused. When a conversation takes so much longer than usual, it can be tempting to want to interrupt and jump ahead to other topics. In the long run, this kind of rush to move forward just makes the user of AAC frustrated. It’s best to ask one question or offer one topic for discussion at a time and give the person time to respond in full. Be sure the AAC user is done speaking before engaging in a separate conversation or walking away. It can be discouraging to not have the opportunity to share after having made the effort to type a response.
  6. Be Thorough. At frequent points along the way, take time to check for understanding. AAC often does not accurately portray what the user intends to communicate, for reasons such as lack of ability to display range of tone and emotion. When you don’t understand what the user is trying to communicate, say so, recap what you do understand, then ask for further explanation.
  7. Be Yourself. Don’t get weird. Sure, some of your customer service people may not have much experience in working with people using AAC, but they need to know that they don’t have to change who they are or how they usually act. Nothing will make the user of AAC more comfortable than you being comfortable.

Customer service training programs incorporating an AAC focus

The list of seven to-do’s above might serve as the backbone of a high-quality training program for your employees on how to help people using AAC. But take a look at the list again:

  • Be Respectful
  • Be Patient
  • Be Flexible
  • Be Discreet
  • Be Focused
  • Be Thorough
  • Be Yourself

Now, isn’t that exactly how you want your customer service people to treat everyone, all the time? Of course, it is. The only difference when working with a person using AAC is a matter of degree. Your people need to be more respectful, more patient, more flexible, and so on.

And that gives you a great opportunity to train your staff to be a world class customer service team. By role playing scenarios that include the unique challenges of helping someone using AAC, you can improve your team’s skills immeasurably—and this will help them become better at their jobs when working with anyone.


Developed by an experienced American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) certified Speech Pathologist, APP2Speak® is an augmentative and alternative speech and communication photo-based software application for the iPad, iPhone, tablets and smartphones, helping individuals who have difficulty speaking.

Learn more about APP2Speak®