Briefing 4 -The Real Art of Special Needs Customer Care


The Issue

Quite a few years ago, I co-authored a book that reported on our research into Equality and Diversity.  That book identified a conundrum that lies at the heart of delivering quality service to those who are variously labelled as “disabled” or “with special needs” among other politically more or less correct terminology.

In our research, which explored equality and diversity in six different European countries, we found that companies were becoming more focused on the need to offer equal opportunity, not only in their internal systems, but also in their dealings with customers and suppliers. In customer care charters, words such as “equality” and “fairness” began to appear, often a mix of text lifted from various “Acts” from government such as the Disability Equality Duty and Disability Discrimination Act 2005. At one of the spectrum is the notion of equality – providing equal and “fair” access to an organisation’s products or services – not only the product or service itself, but also the associated promotional materials and administrative procedures. Discrimination would there be defined as any action or intention that in some way diminishes the customer’s experience of that surface in a way that is unreasonable compared to other customers. Providing “equal” access for example, might include providing tenancy agreements in Braille, or also ramp access to buildings.

Here “equalising” was also about normalising and create an experience of sameness in terms of customer service quality standards. In more commercial sectors, often minimal legal compliance was sought. In other sectors and organisations, a “compliance plus” approach was sought where best practice went beyond minimal compliance.

The Challenge

The conundrum arises when we enter the field of “diversity”, which overlaps with the field of “equality”. If (at least in part), equality is about treating everyone the same, then diversity is about two things: Firstly it chimes well with equality in recognising everyone’s equal right to access a service at the same level quality, no matter who they are, or from which of the many diverse groups in society there are, which includes notions of “able bodied” and “disabled” (These terms have  in my view rightly – fallen out of favour, yet we have failed to find new terms that have embedded well). In our book we identified many diversities beyond those of race, gender, ethnic origin and “disability”. We also found diversities in terms of education, locality, attitudes, technology-affinity, experience in life, and many more. Here we arrive at the second aspect of diversity in which “each human being is an unique species of one”. Part of the right to equal access, is the equal right to be seen, to see oneself and to be treated as an individual and different.

How do we offer a flexible customer service that creates equality in terms of consistency and fairness and, at the same time, allow every customer or tenant to be an individual?

This is the challenge of customer care in social housing. Many disabled people do not wish to be tarred with exactly the same brush as others with similar disabilities. Some want to be called disabled. Some don’t. (Some don’t want to be called customers!).

Our book found that there is a profound and vital competence that needs to be, and can be developed in staff – a diversity competence that is able to locate the right balance in each individual situation that homes in on the specific needs of the customer/tenant, whilst upholding legal and ethical equality requirements. It requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, an ability to diagnose in real time the needs of different people, and an attitude of openness and flexibility. It also requires induction and education of the customers themselves. Good customer service is always a two way process of mutual respect and understanding. It isn’t only about delivery – it is about interaction.

At the heart of a lot of customer service in social housing when catering to those with disability and special needs, is the focus on how to make “reasonable adjustments.” There are plenty of guidelines for this. For example the Disability Rights Commission points out:

“Because buildings and programmes have been designed in a way which excludes disabled people, they are instead often catered for by ‘special’ services. Too often this has resulted in disabled people finding themselves trapped in poor housing conditions, completely unsuitable to their needs. From December 2006 landlords, both private and social, will have new  duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, as will those  who control or manage rented property. “

Here’s a bit more:  “The law requires landlords to respond reasonably to the requests of  disabled occupiers or would be tenants. In order to do this it will often  be necessary for (especially larger) landlords to prepare in advance by  making arrangements to respond to requests – whether for extra assistance or alternative formats – or simply providing training for staff so that they know that they should implement rules flexibly where there  is a disability issue. “

Examples of the types of adjustments which could be made by landlords
· providing tenancy agreements in alternative formats, large
print, Braille, audio tape, easy read
· providing a British Sign Language interpreter during meetings
with tenants who use British Sign Language
· waiving a no pets policy for a disabled person with an assistance
· spending extra time with tenants who have learning difficulties
to ensure they understand their tenancy agreement and general
rules, etc
· a temporary ramp could be provided for a wheelchair user who
has a small step up into their flat.

So, these are the legal “reasonable” requirements that go with customer care. They are the “push” elements of customer care based on a generic view of fairness. Meeting these become the “baseline” for customer care. Staff need – to varying degrees – to know the law here, and how to make the “reasonable” adjustments” necessary.

But this can be done reluctantly, in a minimal compliance kind of way, or with energy and motivation, in a way where “reasonableness” is seen as a useful tool in helping to housing association to discharge or even exceed its duties, creating a sense of “customer satisfaction” that goes beyond the expected minimum.

The Agenda for Training

So, the training agenda needs to start with the baseline. Customer care in the field of disability will need to ensure that staff are informed and also have “bought into” the underpinning values of equality and diversity. There’s a difference between technically and correctly “doing” reasonable, and also “feeling” and “being” reasonable.

Training will therefore need also to uncover and explore staff beliefs and values about what customer care is, and link it to their stereotypes and values concerning disability. This adds “disability awareness” to “disability compliance”.

But we have to go further. In a diverse customer base, customers and tenants are all unique and see themselves as both individual and members of groups with “equal rights”. Training here is about staff really “getting”this idea, and seeing how we need to be skilled at “multitasking” in this area – being able to see the customer simultaneously as an individual AND a member of a demographic group with generic rights and needs. This is about being able to be both situational and contextual, individual AND organisation focused, able to “juggle” different needs and know when to apply systems clearly and rigidly and when to flex and use individual initiative.

Here training has to be very experiential and interactive:

– allowing participants to become informed about the legal and business requirements (which can be done also outside of a training room)

– enabling deep and meaningful discussion and reflection on organisational expectations and personal values and beliefs

– allowing participants to practice new skills in recognition, diagnosis of situations, prioritising issues, and knowing how to be flexible to each individual, yet assertive of procedures and the law

It becomes a training in recognising, valuing and working with diversity, within the context of understood and authentically bought-into values and processes.

“I’m visually impaired but don’t want to be treated as if I can’t see.”

“I don’t want or need all of these “reasonable” adjustments. I just want “this” in my house.

“I need a ramp around the back of the house, not the front. I don’t use my front door.”

“I want to feel someone s really listening to me here.”

Some disabilities are clinically diagnosable. Others are more self-labelled. We all have a different mix of diversities, some of which may help and some of which may hinder our ability to act in the world in ways we would call satisfactory to ourselves or to others. Some have names, some have therapies, some have “reasonable adjustments” made for them. Others are hidden, sometimes even from ourselves. We are all born perfect in our imperfections! We are on very dangerous territory when organisations and “others” label those imperfections even AS imperfection, and when they label them and impose those labels onto us. Yet, in a customer-deliverer interaction, often it is the hidden diversities that may be at play – our inability to take in information, a “trigger” that makes us respond fearfully, an inability to read tables of numbers or understand money matters over the telephone. We may not be aware of our quick temper, or we may not be well physically coordinated. We may also be pre-diagnosis – we may stumble on stairs or during a conversation because of a medical condition yet to be identified, or never diagnosed in the first place. The important thing is not to label the diversity but to be able to become aware of it and, as a supplier of service, to respond sensible, sensitively and helpfully to it, whilst maintaining the standards of the organisation we work for.

Training in customer care relating to disability will also have to connect properly with the wider customer care processes for the organisation. There will be standard processes and staff will also need to learn how to “switch” between different types of customer. This ability to switch and change is hard for some staff used to one way of doing things. So, training also needs to identify how we learn new skills, and change in real time, how we switch between processes and then quickly switch back. It’s as much about our tone of voice, our ability to observe ourselves, give and take feedback, learn from mistakes and deal with pressure and stress.

Training in this field will need to stick, be real, engaging and challenging. It has to be done in workshop, not classroom format, and it can feel energising and enjoyable. It can change lives, not only for the staff, but also for the customers. Some of the best organisations I have worked with in this area are training their staff to move beyond the notion of “reasonable adjustments”. The term itself already locates a section of society as “off-normal”, needing to be adjusted to! Reasonable adjustments is still used when adapting buildings and carrying our upgrade work. Elsewhere, especially on the front line of customer care, the skill is really about, not adjusting, but in meeting each customer anew, whoever they are, with the ability to listen, quickly and efficiently identify the need and formulate a truthful, valuable response that meets the customer’s individual needs within the clearly explained and mutually understood boundaries of the organisation’s policies, procedures and customer “promises” (The contract AND the charter). In this case, we don’t “adjust”, we simply meet each customer as an individual with skilful flexibility. We “customise”, and allow the customer to feel they are doing the same. It is kept “real” and in-budget by clearly understood standards and expectations, with clear and assertive communication and active, respectful listening.

I’m developing several learning programmes in this area and am happy to chat further!



About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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