Business Principles: Customer Service … Awareness of Ability?

Let me start with a question for each of you … have you ever been in a queue in a store or using public transport when another customer has asked what to you sounded like a daft question?  Perhaps you were on a train and someone asked you if it stopped at a particular station and you thought to yourself  “can’t they read? it says the stops over that doorway” or “why did they get on a train without knowing they could get off again?”

We tend to assume that others have the same abilities as ourselves … which is not often the case.


On Friday when I was in a supermarket there was an older gentleman in front of me trying to pay for a few groceries with his debit card.  He had his eyes screwed up as if reading was difficult for him, his hand shook as he tried to press the tiny buttons and the machine kept timing out.  I am quite certain that there would have been a good few people witnessing this who would have thought “poor old chap – losing his wits and cannot remember his PIN”  After several attempts and just before the machine was going to lock up the woman on the till did the only thing she could she asked him to tell her his PIN and she entered it for him.

I imagine some of you are horrified that she would have risked that but what else could she do that avoided him being embarrassed and losing access to his debit card?  Actually when it was my turn I could see exactly what the problem was and it was nothing to do with his memory … the keypad had one of those guards round it that half covers the first row of numbers – it is tricky to bend your fingers upwards to hit the keys accurately and you cannot see which key you are hitting.  I ended up bending right down to see the keys.  I appreciate that the banks and stores are trying to preserve people’s data security but depending on an individual’s abilities they are actually increasing the risk if they cannot use the keypad.

This example is very relevant to my area of work – there is no point having technology to be assistive is using it is complicated and cumbersome.

Then yesterday I heard a man as he was getting off the bus ask about buses for the return journey.  The driver was running late and he answered that the buses left the high street at 5 past the hour.  The man pushed for more information – he wanted to know what time they got to the supermarket stop.  The driver was slightly curt and said he didn’t know.  I advised 10 past the hour and the man alighted.  As we pulled away the driver said to me through gritted teeth “I am running late and he asks that every time.”

I did not say anything because the driver was already anxious about running late but the man in question was probably around mid forties to  fifties.  Why does his age make a difference? because people assume that only old people are forgetful and get dementias.  There is no way of knowing whether that individual has early onset dementia, has had a stroke, just has poor memory, cannot read a bus timetable, has a learning disability or mental ill health which causes anxiety … I get that it is irritating if someone repeats behaviour that we see as being unnecessary but for some it is very necessary for them to be able to live as independently as possible.

In a telecare context we could enable an individual who forgets as a result of a medical condition by loading the information into a device such as a personal digital assistant (a smartphone could provide this functionality) and training the person to rely on that information.

Another example from the buses – often a person will board and ask if this is the bus for X; the driver replies no and once they have got off the driver will say “can’t they read, what is the point of having the destination on the front?”  Of course they probably would manage not to say that if the person was accompanied by a guide dog … but people who are blind do not necessarily have a guide dog; people affected by colour blindness or similar conditions may struggle with the LED destination signage or the person may literally not be able to read or may have limited literacy.

There is a device which provides an audio on a satnav system which can tell a person where they are but we have not yet invented a device that can read an approaching bus front.  It should be possible for us to do so and it should also be possible to equip every bus stop with audio to advise which service the approaching bus is.  The buses have tracking devices that operate the visual signage that tell us the bus will be 2 minutes or is due …

Related to that scenario are the very imaginative individuals who think that assistance dogs have some kind of super powers … I regularly encounter Donnie Dog as I have previously mentioned – Donnie is a young guide dog and he is not as aware as the old dog he replaced – but that is down to learning and not ability.  

His person boards the bus and has a routine.  He is familiar with the layout of our regular buses – in fact I was the person who helped him with that when they first came into service.  If it is not one of our fleet either the driver or a passenger who knows him will let him know it is different – eg there is a extra step to board.  He is often guided to the nearest seat by another passenger telling him whether it is on his right or left.  From then on he sits and has Donnie Dog turn and reverse up under the seat and sit.  He doesn’t take Donnie Dog’s harness off but does give him a big fuss and then expects him to settle while his person gets out his audio book or audio work diary.  He listens all the way until he gets to a short distance before his stop then he checks his watch, puts away the audio set and sorts out hat, gloves etc before lifting Donnie Dog’s lead.  This is Donnie Dogs cue to stand up.

I have been on the bus on an afternoon and as they approach their stop I have overheard passengers say “isn’t he a wonderful dog – he is so clever but I wonder how he knows where to get off?”  I want to say three things to them – but have never done so: (1) Yes he is a wonderful dog but he is as clever as any other dog – he is after all a dog;  (2) he knows where to get off because his person signals him to; and (3) By the way his person is blind and not deaf or daft – how about you ask him?  In fact one of the ways a blind person knows their stop is approaching is by learning the twists and turns of the route as well as using the time it has taken as a guide.  This isn;t as tricky as it sounds – if you use the same bus route day in day out and one day you close your eyes you will find you have a pretty good idea where you are because your sub conscious mind has absorbed that information.

These sorts of assumptions are akin to me assuming that a 9 week old Pup can do the same as 9 year old Dog – he will learn and he may learn things that Dog has never got the hang of – but I cannot expect him to respond to a whistle at his age … he is not able to understand that the noise I am making means he has to come to me or stop and sit up.

Translating all that into Good Customer Service

Now when it comes to customer service we cannot do the opposite and assume that everyone has no ability – that would be patronising.  What we can do is take each individual as we find them – be aware that diversity of ability presents us with challenges in delivering the same high level of customer service.  We can be prepared to do as the young checkout operator did and ‘break the rules’ if that is what the person agrees to and it is done appropriately.  As you saw from the title it is about making ourselves aware of ability and not looking for disability.


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About nonehpets

I have an interest in how interior design and adapting a home to support living independently for longer can be complementary. The blog Life Long Design is part of an holistic plan for establishing a social enterprise which will offer the people of Tayside opportunities to explore Telecare and the wider scope of assistive technologies. Enabling individuals to make more informed and responsible choices in the care and support they need in their independent living. I am also keen to see public transport more widely adopted and sustainable rural bus services in particular supported. The Blog Travels with a Megarider shares my journey to find serenity in my life as I make that transition form employment to social entrepreneur. One of my methods in increasing serenity is to travel as many miles as I can on a fixed price bus ticket and explore my own local places of interest. Places that I used to go past and had never stopped to look at; places of peace and tranquility; places where I have had some wonderful conversations with complete strangers. I would like to share with you a response to when I described that one paragraph in an e-mail made it sound simple: "Believe me, Cathy, it does not sound simple. You are taking on an incredible challenge for all the right reasons. It is ambitious and admirable - the sort of project that can change lives, including yours." He is right it is ambitious but when did we every achieve anything by settling for the status quo and ignoring what doesn't work for people? So I would welcome your company from time to time on this journey either simply as a reader or if you are brave enough adding your own thoughts to the comments as you feel moved.

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