AAC and the Customer Service Experience


If you’re someone who uses an app for text-to-speech or photo-to-speech to communicate, such as APP2Speak, you’ve probably had many poor customer service experiences when dealing with businesses, either in person, on the phone, or online.

man using a picture-to-speech app to communicateNow, I understand that this is probably true for just about every customer on the planet, but I think it probably happens much more often to people who can’t speak.
Of course, in the perfect world, it shouldn’t be that way, and thankfully, there are organizations that stand up for the rights of people with disabilities.

For example, in 2016, the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities (NJC) published a Communication Bill of Rights that states:

“All people with a disability of any extent or severity have a basic right to affect, through communication, the conditions of their existence.”
Here are just a few of the “fundamental communication rights” affirmed in the document:

• The right to interact socially, maintain social closeness, and build relationships
• The right to express personal preferences and feelings
• The right to make comments and share opinions
• The right to have communication acts acknowledged and responded to even when the desired outcome cannot be realized
• The right to access environmental contexts, interactions, and opportunities that promote participation as full communication partners with other people, including peers
• The right to be addressed directly and not be spoken for or talked about in the third person while present
• The right to be treated with dignity and addressed with respect and courtesy

Now, all of those make perfect sense, don’t they? They’re so obvious that we probably shouldn’t need to have a document that states them.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The reason it IS necessary for organizations such as the NJC to create these kinds of documents is that people who have difficulty speaking are often treated in ways that violate these basic “rights” in many situations…

Including situations involving purchasing goods and services from businesses and interacting with customer service.

And in regards to these situations, I’d like to call special attention to the last bullet point I listed above:

The right to be treated with dignity and addressed with respect and courtesy

That’s the one that so often comes into play (as in, gets violated) when interacting face-to-face with employees of businesses or on the phone or online with customer service representatives.

But rather than focus on the negative in today’s blog post and share customer service horror stories involving people using AAC, I’d like to take the high road—so instead, let’s take a look at what you should have the right to expect from businesses and customer service people.

And what you should have the right to expect is simple.

You deserve to have a great customer service experience—just like anyone else.

Let’s break down what that means in list form…

7 Qualities of a Great Customer Service Experience for People Using AAC

What, exactly, does it look like when a company provides a great customer service experience for someone using AAC?

Here are seven qualities the employee or customer service representative should demonstrate:

1. Respect—People who use AAC are just like anyone else—except for their method of communication. Businesses shouldn’t assume lack of intelligence and limit topics of discussion just because the customer uses AAC. They should remember that they’re communicating with the person, not the device, and they should use all the usual eye contact, body language, and speech they would use when helping someone who doesn’t use an AAC device.

2. Patience—This can be difficult for some employees and customer service 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 person must be willing to take the time necessary to serve the customer—no matter how long it takes.

3. Flexibility—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 a glitch. In such situations, it might be necessary to look for an alternative way to communicate, and the customer service rep should gladly offer other options that are available.

4. Discretion—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, when the interaction takes place in a public setting, customer service people should respect your screen privacy, unless you invite them to look.

5. Focus—When a conversation takes so much longer than usual, it can be tempting for the employee to want to interrupt and jump ahead to other topics. As you know, in the long run, this kind of rush to move forward just ends up making you frustrated. The best customer service people ask one question or offer one topic for discussion at a time and give you time to respond in full.

6. Perseverance—I don’t have to tell you that AAC sometimes doesn’t accurately portray what you’re trying to communicate, for reasons such as lack of ability to display a range of tone and emotion. A respectful and engaged customer service rep will take the time to check for understanding along the way, and if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll say so, they’ll recap what they do understand, and then they’ll ask for further explanation.

7. Normalcy—Finally, the best customer service people don’t get weird when interacting with you. Sure, they may not have much experience working with people using AAC, but they shouldn’t change who they are or how they usually act. They should realize that the best way to make you comfortable is to be comfortable in the situation themselves.

Great Customer Service for People Using AAC—It’s not About the Qualities, It’s About the Degree

OK, let’s take a look at that list again. As you read through the qualities listed, imagine a customer service person who embodies all of these qualities:

• Respect
• Patience
• Flexibility
• Discretion
• Focus
• Perseverance
• Normalcy

Now, a customer service rep with all those qualities would likely be great at their job, wouldn’t they?

But here’s the thing…

Doesn’t this list describe how we would want a customer service person to treat everyone, all the time? Of course, it is.

The only difference when helping a person using AAC is a matter of degree. A great customer service representative simply needs to be more respectful, more patient, more flexible, etc.

As someone who uses AAC, you should expect this kind of service when interacting with every business. And when you get service that falls far short of this standard, you need to take your business elsewhere (assuming that’s an option). You have enough challenges to deal with without having to put up with poor service!