As approximately 50% of small businesses fail annually, great customer service for a diverse customer base can really give you a leg up. Catering to people with disabilities seems to be the new “green” and business owners are recognizing they are catering not only to this population, but to their friends and families as well.
Costly accommodations might be difficult in some cases, but small changes in attitude and service is doable for very little effort or expense. The following suggestions might seem minor, but can go a long way in improving your bottom line.
1) Make aisles wide and clutter-free.
Aisles that are easy to navigate through will appeal to parents with baby carriages as well as wheelchair users! I realize square footage is expensive, but cramming in as much merchandise as possible at the expense of alienating these two groups of people is not good for business. I’d like to see pathways at a minimum of 3 feet in width, preferably closer to 5 feet, to allow for easy access on both sides of the aisle.
2) Know it is OK to offer to help.
Should you offer to help and risk insulting the customer? Should you ask right away or wait until the need for help is obvious? Should you wait until the customer asks you for help? If you don’t have a lot of experience with people with disabilities, you might feel awkward in this situation. Offering help is kind and generally appreciated. However do not provide help without asking first, and accept the answer if the offer is declined. The individual with the disability may not need help, or may want to try to be independent first. However, it is nice to know the help is available!
3) Teach employees to treat all customers with respect.
Make sure your employees who have no direct experience with someone with a disability are comfortable and educated about how to treat these customers. Stress the importance of treating everyone with the same amount of respect and courtesy. Doing so will earn you loyal, repeat customers.
4) Make eye contact and speak directly to the person with the disability
As a caregiver, I am always surprised when an employee talks to me instead of the person with a disability with whom I am shopping. That person is often the one with the money and 9 times out of 10 does not have a problem communicating! I imagine some people are uncomfortable making eye contact with someone who is not on eye level, for example someone in a wheelchair, but doing so is extremely important to show respect. Simply put, don’t treat people with a disability as though they are invisible.
5) Ask permission before touching.
Many times people with disabilities use items such canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Keep in mind these mobility devices are considered an extension of the person. Just as a pregnant woman does not want you to touch her belly without asking, an individual with a disability does not want you to handle one of their personal aids!
6) Allow extra time at checkout.
Patience is a virtue. Many times a customer with a disability is slower, and extra time at checkout may be necessary. Please be patient, and know they hate holding up the line as much as you do. Also, those who use wheelchairs very much appreciate a lower counter area to sign the receipt. Even if you can only provide a clip board, any extra effort will earn our loyalty.
7) Offer specialized help if needed.
Unanticipated special requests can arise from patrons with disabilities and we encourage you to make every effort to politely fulfill them.For example, a door may be difficult to open from a wheelchair, especially if it’s windy (or better yet, install an automatic door if you have the budget!). If you own a restaurant, you may get a request to cut meat before bringing the entree out of the kitchen. Someone with mobility issues may unintentionally drop straws or silverware on the floor repeatedly, so they may ask you to provide replacements. Smile and remember to be patient – a living with a disability is hard and these people are not trying to annoy you!
People with disabilites and their friends and families say inclusivity pays off. These customers talk among themselves about which businesses make an extra effort to provide good service and accommodations. Additionally, people for whom mobility is an issue tend to be devoted to local businesses. Boost your business by advertising on your website and social media that you welcome patrons with disabilities. If you treat people well, you will develop long-term relationships and customers!