Could this tool improve customer service for disabled people?

A Scottish-based tech company has come up with an idea to let shops and businesses know when disabled customers are arriving, as well as how to help them.

There are currently more than 14 million disabled people in the UK, half of which are of working age.

This adds up to a large amount of spending power, known as the Purple Pound, which is thought to contribute around £249 billion annually to our economy. 

However, despite the evident spending power of disabled households, 70% of disabled people report experiencing poor customer service, and few businesses have accessibility at the top of their agenda.

Estimates found that ‘businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people,’ according to Purple, an organisation dedicated to reducing levels of inequality between disabled and non-disabled people.

Customer service

In 2011, former guide dog trainer, Gavin Neate, started observing that the needs of disabled people often got missed, overshadowed or ignored in favour of their carers.  

Gavin believed that more staff training was needed, and in 2017 he decided to take the plunge and develop ‘WelcoMe’, an app that offers in-the-moment staff training.

It works by using ‘phone location services to alert customer service teams to the arrival and specific needs of disabled customers.’

In-the-moment training means that individual staff members do not need to memorise every access need and can also allow them to identify people with invisible conditions. 

‘The app works based on what disability and specifics need the individual inputs into the app,’ the WelcoMe site states.

‘Bad customer service is something we all experience, and this app aims to improve service for everyone while empowering disabled people.

‘WelcoMe is a most person-centred tool to share access needs, helping businesses deliver better and inclusive customer experiences to their visitors with enhanced communication and instant training.’

It aims to make face-to-face interactions between disabled people and staff as ‘informed, anxiety-free and friendly as possible.’

Since then, it has been implemented across 160 venues throughout the UK, within the transport, hospitality, tourism, government, health, sport and recreation sectors.

Some of these include the NHS, Scottish Government, 13 local councils, Westfield, Diageo, Edinburgh Airport, East Midland Railway and NorthLink Ferries.

Improving the experience 

‘Our aim is to end arrival anxiety by giving disabled people a dignified and personal method to share their requirements,’ Gavin tells Metro.co.uk.

‘WelcoMe has been developed to support disabled people in their day-to-day interactions but also to encourage them to look at new or unknown venues – without the anxiety associated with going somewhere they haven’t been before. 

‘Our users can request new venues to join the platform, and it is this aspect which we hope will gain traction and encourage disabled people to be an active part in the spread of a service which has been developed to support them.’

The problem

Bad customer service has made leaving the house a daunting prospect for disabled people.

However, it is not realistic to expect each member of staff to understand the needs of every disabled person from the basic and brief training they may have been given. This tool aims to improve service for everyone, ’empowering disabled people while giving confidence to service team personnel.’

Over time Gavin noticed that physical needs were often the main focus of discussions around accessibility – whether a store has a ramp for wheelchairs, for example – and he began to get himself frustrated that social access didn’t get the same attention.

‘Social access is important. Even if you can enter a venue, people may still discriminate against you. Staff need to understand how to interact with everyone.’ says Gavin.

‘WelcoMe seeks to put disabled people at the centre of the relationship while helping staff provide better services.’

The tool covers various physical, mental, visible and invisible illnesses.

How it works

Users can plan a visit by searching through the venues that offer the service.

They are then taken to a page that shows the store’s opening times, accessibility features and the assistance available at the store. After selecting ‘going’, the user can then put the date and time they are making their planned visit — giving a two-hour warning to the venue.

They are then prompted to input and state what assistance they need.

Once the booking has been confirmed, an alert is sent to the destination, where they will receive any information given about the visitor’s disability, access needs and specific details on how to help them.

The app uses mobile phone location settings, so staff will be notified once the disabled customer is nearby.

And it’s received positive feedback from the disabled community, who have felt more confident to explore more places and has also received praise from stores who have seen improvements in their service and feedback.

Why is it so important?

‘Currently, disabled people visit venues and hope they will receive good and non-discriminatory first point of contact service,’ Gavin states.

‘Anxiety that this will happen can often lead people to decide not to visit at all.’

‘Traditional staff training doesn’t and can’t work.

‘There is just too much to learn, and it is far too difficult in the moment to recall such training. It’s totally impossible unless the visitor self declares a need in the moment.’

Gavin believes that with WelcoMe in place, ‘people can be assured that they will be met by someone who understands their needs and is prepared to interact in a way stipulated by the disabled visitor.

He adds: ‘With better customer service, more people are encouraged into society with the benefits to health, commerce and social interactions key to a happy, healthy, productive society.’

Stores

It has been over a year since St James Quarter, a retail shopping centre and residential development in the centre of Edinburgh, implemented WelcoMe.

‘We want all guests to St James Quarter to have an enjoyable experience, and WelcoMe makes it easy to get the best possible accessible service,’ a spokesperson told Metro.co.uk.

‘Not only does WelcoMe improve the overall guest experience by enabling our disabled visitors to communicate their needs and requirements in advance of arriving, but it also empowers our team to go above and beyond for our guests.’

The development has been using the tool ever since it opened on June 24 2021 and says that it has ‘created a personalised approach to our guest service and provides reassurance to our guests that no matter how visible or hidden their disability might be, we’ll always ensure that we cater to their needs.’

Disabled customers

Siobhan Meade, a totally blind, prosthetic eye user, YouTube creator and user of WelcoMe, says that everyone experiences poor customer service.

‘Accessing new shops and venues is particularly nerve-racking because it’s often hard to get help, and when you do, it’s not always effective help,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Navigating public spaces as a disabled person is very variable.’

Siobhan has been using WelcoMe for a few years now and says her experience has been ‘good’.

She explains: ‘More venues need to install technology to help disabled customers. The more businesses that become accessible, the more customers they will attract.

‘WelcoMe has enabled me to seek assistance in the bank and other premises. People are aware of the help I need, and they have been ready and willing to assist me in an effective way. 

‘The truth is it doesn’t matter which technology or tool a business explores, as long as it is consistent.’

Siobhan believes that implementing tools such as WelcoMe will help improve the lives of disabled people while also helping businesses to increase their profits.

She says: ‘If I knew your store had WelcoMe and was going to be accommodating, I would want to go back and utilise your service. And if a place is as accessible as possible, then why wouldn’t I want to go back to a place that accommodates my needs and requirements.

‘It seems like a no-brainer to me.’

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