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 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 business and public organisations. 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 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, in social housing, 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
in the case of housing include:
· 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
· 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 a housing association to discharge or even exceed its duties, creating a sense of “customer satisfaction” that goes beyond the expected minimum.
Hidden and Visible Diversity – the learning challenge
Visible diversity can be, literally, physically visible to us. In different situations we can (often dangerously) label someone by their physical appearance to us, their voice, what they are waiting, how they move, what they say. What is presented to the physical senses is different in each person. It can be tempting to base our response on these visual and auditory clues. Other diversities are hidden. For example, the state of mind or feeling of the person, what has just happened to them before we met them, their history, and the constellation of people and issues around them. The person may identify, more or less, with their physical and emotional state. They may be more or less aware of their own hidden diversity. I may be confused but think I am not. I may be scared but identify myself as brave. Hidden diversity plays into human interaction (which includes customer service) as much as visible diversity. Learning how to respond to hidden diversity allows us to respond to humans an unique individuals. here we go beyond categorising and move into the need to improvise our response for each individual ,in real time.