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Article : Accessibility of Contact Centres for People with Disabilities

In the dark ages BC (before call centres) when customer relations staff dealt with customers in person, it was impossible to ignore the access needs of a person with a disability. With the impersonality and remoteness of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM), the communication and access requirements of a customer with a disability are less obvious – in fact they may not be able to contact you at all.

The issue of call centre access for people with disabilities is a hot problem across the world. As call centres and CRM have grown at accelerating rates, so the negative impact on people with disabilities has also grown. A common mythology fuelled by media hype is that technology and innovation are making life easier for people with disabilities, if anything it is quite the reverse. Each new technology creates a new group of people disadvantaged because they can't use it, can't get to it, can't afford it or it doesn't work where they live. While call centres enable people to conduct business by phone rather than travel, you have to be able to make effective use of the phone to get any type of service.

To make effective use of a call centre you usually need to undertake a combination of the following skills:

  • Be able to speak and hear on the phone, or use a text device to contact the centre.
  • Receive strings of text or verbal directions, remember your options, then accurately indicate your choice – within the time allocated.
  • You usually need to manage your papers or cards, reading numbers or data from them and inputting that information using some type of keypad.
  • Speak in a manner that a voice recognition system can understand.
  • Be able to clearly articulate your needs in a language and manner understood by call takers.

Each of these possible access skills has the potential to create "roadblocks" for people with disabilities. It is not just people with hearing or speech impairments that have difficulty but also dexterity, mobility, vision, linguistic, memory, and intellectual processing impact on the accessibility of contact centres. At some stage in everyone's lives we will experience difficulties in one or more of these areas, whether through illness or injury or permanent incapacity. Disability access will affect everyone at sometime in their life!

Since many contact centres do not provide access to people who rely on text phones or text devices such as the TTY, they may be called via a Telephone Relay Service (TRS – in Australia this is known as the National Relay Service or NRS). The relay service facilitates conversation between a text caller and a hearing caller by translating text to voice and voice to text in real time. This causes a number of issues for call centre interaction. Typical IVR timeouts expire before relay staff can convey all prompts, wait for a response from the text caller, then activate that response at the IVR. This makes IVR front ends almost impossible via relay. Most call centre staff do not understand relay and call refusals are common. This causes great frustration for text callers who usually have no alternative option. The additional time taken to relay a call, estimated at 7 to 10 times longer than a direct voice call can frustrate contact centre staff.

Call centres are often characterised by high staff turnover, yet there may be infrequent calls from people with particular access needs. This poses challenges to train and maintain appropriate skill levels within a changing staff. To further complicate the issue call centre staff are often measured on their speed of call processing. People with disabilities can upset your metrics and this may cause stress for call handlers!

Call centres can be made more accessible. Text users may wish to make direct contact with your service, so consider installing textphone access (eg TTY), but remember that many callers have good reason to prefer using a relay service. There are whole of network based textphone systems that can be installed on your agents network computers. These allow each computer workstation to access a central bank of modems and transfer calls in the usual fashion. A more elegant solution would be to get your IVR supplier to integrate textphone capability right into your IVR design.

Regardless of your solution, staff need to be trained to deal with direct textphone calls and work through a relay service. You will find that your relay provider and local community groups will be delighted to assist you in developing training programs and may assist in providing practice activities. IVR timeout problems can be averted by offering access to a human operator at the first menu encountered by callers. Many callers with a disability will be much more comfortable and effective working with human agents rather than IVRs. When designing your scripts, menus and call flows, consider the needs of the diversity of callers you will encounter. In the process of accommodating the needs of people with a disability you will almost certainly improve the overall customer experience. Involving consultants and consumers with experience and knowledge of accessible design will result in a superior service and reduce the probability of expensive upgrades to meet accessibility regulations at a later date.

While the IVR is often seen as the offending technology in call centres, that need not be the case. Australian Communication Exchange has worked closely with our IVR supplier (information Technologies Australia) to build a relay service platform based on IVR technology and standard call centre components. Using the programmability of the IVR and its flexibility in accepting inputs from a range of sources, including textphones, we have created a modern relay service that is capable of working effectively with all textphone equipment in common use. As the IVR can interwork with databases and telephony data we are able to couple the intelligence of the network with stored information to automate many tasks. This enhances the customer experience, speeds call set up times and allows customers to use the communication mode that best suits their needs.

There is one thing you can bank on, all of us at some stage of our lives will be either the victim of inaccessible contact centres – or a customer grateful that their service provider has made a small effort that makes a big difference. What kind of customer contact centre will you be judged as?


About Len Bytheway:
Len has combined his knowledge and experiences from Engineering in the Navy; as a science teacher then teacher of the Deaf; work in the IT and telecommunications industry and more recently business studies to prepare him for his role as CEO of ACE and the National Relay Service.

About Australian Communication Exchange (ACE):
Company LogoAustralian Communication Exchange (ACE) is a not-for-profit, consumer led organisation dedicated to empowering those who are deaf or have a hearing, speech or communication impairment, to obtain access to the telephone and other telecommunication networks. To achieve this, ACE provides the National Relay Service under contract to the Australian Government. This service operates 24 hours everyday.
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