By Craig Radford
In today’s fast-paced and ever-diversifying American society, keeping your call center’s best practices attuned to the needs of all customers can be overwhelming. There are so many languages, communication modalities, and cultural nuances to consider. Customer service and satisfaction have always been an important part of call center work, but with today’s younger consumers making purchasing decisions based on whether a brand or business reflects their own inclusive values, being culturally responsive can mean the difference between gaining a loyal customer and losing one forever.
One essential piece of ensuring your company is as inclusive as possible is to focus on accommodating callers with disabilities. Deaf and hard-of-hearing customers are largely left out of the conversation about customer service, which means your business is missing out on an entire consumer base.
Capture Lost Business
Though America’s 11.5 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people represent an $86 billion dollar market share, many businesses are unsure how to best serve these customers. The lack of information and training surrounding optimized customer service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing can be frustrating for both callers and agents. Agents who are unprepared for communicating with deaf callers are likely to experience wasted time, skewed metrics, and unnecessary escalations and callbacks.
One of the main sources of confusion is the use of third-party relay services by deaf customers. As the name suggests, these services relay information between deaf and hearing users. In a text-based relay model, a typist facilitates a conversation by transcribing the hearing person’s speech, then reading the deaf person’s typed message aloud.
In the more popular Video Relay Service (VRS) model, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter translates between spoken English and ASL via video call. In both models, the process of transcription or translation takes time and leaves repeated opportunities for miscommunication, especially if the interpreter is unfamiliar with company lingo or call context, which is often the case.
Cloud-based contact center tools provide the capacity to move seamlessly between modes of communication, like jumping from a telephone call to a text-based chat box, to best serve callers’ preferences. But what if this technology went beyond two-dimensional? What if we eliminate the middleman altogether in interactions with deaf customers? What if a caller could in effect “press one” for English, “two” for Spanish… and “three” for American Sign Language?
American Sign Language Differs from English
Just like spoken languages, ASL developed organically between people over centuries and is a separate language from English. It has its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and cultural context different from, and uninfluenced by, English conventions. In fact, ASL shares more structural similarities with French Sign Language or even spoken Japanese than it does English.
While many deaf people are bilingual in ASL and English, some deaf people struggle with written English proficiency, just as some hearing people who are bilingual struggle with written proficiency in their second language.
For the deaf community, this issue is exacerbated by language deprivation, caused by long-standing discrimination and substandard access to educational resources. While English text-based chat boxes may be useful for some deaf clients, for others they remain a frequent source of frustration and miscommunication.
Implementing an ASL-fluent Team
Providing deaf representatives who are fluent in ASL and trained in company-specific terminology, either by hiring deaf employees or contracting with a specialized ASL call center, is already making tremendous changes: call centers that have ASL-fluent representatives shortened call times by 33-42 percent and increased deaf customer engagement by 300-533 percent. In one case study, Google found that providing an ASL-speaking representative resulted in 83 percent shorter average handle time when compared to using relay services.
Integration Video Communication Between Agent and Caller
Deaf customers are already using videophones to make calls. So why not leverage the benefits for those callers? For a customer, being able to see a representative restores the element of human connection that only face-to-face interaction can truly offer. For a representative, being able to see a caller can provide valuable context on who that customer is and eliminate friction that stems from miscommunication.
Psychologists studying human communication concluded that that just 7 percent of meaning comes from words themselves. Thirty-eight percent of the information we pick up on comes from voice tone and volume, and the majority, 55 percent, is from body language. This means traditional phone interactions miss out on more than half of communication potential. A video interface reintroduces a person’s natural use of body language and gestures into call center communication, offering not only a more organic communication experience, but a more efficient one as well.
The Future of Call Centers Is Visual and Human-Centered
Using video makes spatially-oriented tasks that are typically hard to describe—like demonstrating a product’s functions or explaining which buttons a caller needs to press during a troubleshooting process—intuitive and fast. Video calls also give representatives and callers the ability to screenshare or demonstrate solutions using the product as a prop.
Agents can show users a button or how to navigate to a site tab, instead of having to explain the step-by-step process. And callers can show agents the errors or problems they’re encountering. A quick game of customer show-and-tell can cut costly minutes off call times, without negatively affecting the value of a customer’s experience and making sure their needs are being met.
The future of call centers is multi-dimensional: a change that mirrors our evolving society and allows companies to be more inclusive and accessible than ever. Whether it’s using the latest technology to better serve deaf and disabled customers or just having a more individualized customer service experience for any customer, cloud-based computing and video calling can be a momentous change agent.
With it, call centers can continue to highlight their best asset: human connection.
Craig Radford has been shaping the advancement of the deaf community for more than 20 years. Craig helped launch Connect Direct, a subsidiary of Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), where he is the vice president of strategy and business development. He works with organizations to help their customer service teams to eliminate the need for third-party translation. Craig has championed the creation of jobs specifically targeted for qualified deaf candidates.