For the more than two million deaf individuals living in the United States alone, a great customer experience is hard to come by.
As VP of Strategy and Development for Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) and its Connect Direct business line, Craig Radford aims to change that, one service interaction at a time. “Our vision is to create a world in which deaf people and hard of hearing people who use sign language have full and equivalent experiences as hearing people,” he says.
In the early 2000s, federal funding led to the creation of Video Relay Services (VRS), which allowed deaf individuals to utilize an interpreter to make phone calls to businesses. Demand for the first-of-its-kind service exploded.
“The federal government paid roughly $17 a minute for VRS, and they didn’t anticipate how enormous the deaf market really was at that point,” Radford says. “Those minutes grew and grew to about 10 million minutes per month.”
Despite the program’s popularity, challenges remain. Organizations must train their staff to handle these often-lengthy calls, and deaf customers must hope that their interpreter accurately conveys their issue—and the business response. Connect Direct’s goal is to empower deaf customers to reach an ASL speaker directly via video—bypassing an interpreter.
For Radford, who is deaf, the challenge to create a better experience is personal.
“In March, when COVID first hit, I was in an airport,” he says. “It was chaos, and I had to call and change my flight. I had to wait on hold to get an interpreter, and when I finally connected to one, I had to hold again for another 40 minutes to be connected to a representative. After finally connecting and going back and forth over my flight details, I hung up. When I received my confirmation e-mail, I noticed it was the wrong flight. It was not what we had just talked about. The interpreter made a mistake.”
Clearing Up Misconceptions
“English may be a second or even third language for the majority of the Deaf population,” says Vannessa LeBoss, Director of Business Operations at Connect Direct.
For that reason, organizations are mistaken if they believe that having a robust live chat feature will adequately serve the needs of the deaf community, she says. “A digital experience is not conducive for deaf people through chat or email, because it's English-based. And a lot of people think, 'Oh, well, English is just ASL in written form.’ And that's not true. American Sign Language is visual—it’s not an English-based language.”
Misunderstanding, she says, is at the heart of poor experience design for people with disabilities, and she advises that CX pros should involve these customers in the design process. “There's nothing worse than someone trying to fix a problem that they're not familiar with. CX professionals need to consider these perspectives and engage those individuals—there are a lot of people with disabilities and organizations that support them that would love to be on board.”
And that involvement must begin early.
“What we often find happens is that we're called in, and the project is 95% completed,” LeBoss says. “And now we're trying to overlay something on top of an already-established foundation. Don’t make it an afterthought, make inclusive design part of your process from the beginning.”
Improving Accessibility and CX at Comcast
Comcast is the world’s 2nd largest broadcasting and cable company and began a pilot with Connect Direct in 2020 to better serve its deaf customers. The results came quickly—with call handling time dropping 33% for those customers--and the impact is continuing with positive word of mouth and loyalty.
“People forget that inclusive practices create loyalty not just among members of this community, but in their families and friends as well,” LeBoss says.
The pilot program led to Comcast’s ongoing investment, including the hiring of additional staff members who are deaf. “I think that in 5 to 10 years, these practices will be the norm,” she predicts. Companies need to ask themselves if they are at the cusp of innovation, accessibility, and inclusion and if not, how can they get there? We want companies to look at inclusion and see the business and human impact that results.”
Uplifting a Community
In addition to Connect Direct’s commitment to better experiences for customers who are deaf, the organization is determined to play a role in reducing widespread employment problems among members of the community. “70% of deaf individuals are unemployed or underemployed,” Radford says. “That’s something we need to fix, and it’s a big part of our long-term vision.”
For Connect Direct, solving the employment crisis means more than just creating a job.
“Our customer support representatives, our quality assurance manager, our operations manager, all of our entire contact center is deaf, from bottom to top,” Radford says. “We’re not just creating jobs, we’re creating professions.”