Disabilities teach us how to improve everyone’s experiences

It can be hard enough doing business with a company sometimes, let alone if we have some kind of physical or mental disability.  However, people who interact with the world in different ways can teach organisations a lot about creating the right customer experiences for them, other customers and – ultimately therefore – the balance sheet.

Having travelled a lot recently and spoken at aviation conferences I’m look at it here from an airport’s perspective.  The principles though apply to any sector.

The World Health Organisation says: “Disability arises from the interaction between people with a health condition and their environment.”  Airports control the environment passengers are in and therefore it’s within their gift to minimise the impact of being disabled.

After all, whether we’re a hard-working employee always on the go, someone of restricted mobility or a carer with an adult who has a learning difficulty,  we all want pretty much the same thing.  Last year I researched what passengers said to each other about going through an airport.  The 800 comments I reviewed on Skytrax showed they simply wanted it to be quick, easy, calm, clean and friendly.  Any ‘Wow!’ factors can wait until the basics are in place and happening consistently.

Airports are under immense pressure to perform efficiently and focusing on customer experiences is key to the game plan.  However, we also know that rising consumer expectations are outpacing the rate at which better experiences are being delivered.

By understanding what it’s really like to travel with a disability, not only does it make the experience better for the people who need it most but it also stretches the thinking to improve things for all passengers.  And, if doing the right thing needed justifying, it’s great for an airport’s revenue and cost lines too.

It is, of course, about doing what’s right, but there is a real-world commercial context that this sits in.  Inevitably there will be some who remain to be convinced, worried about the impact on their processes, operational efficiencies, costs, metrics and compliance scorecards.

Sceptical stakeholders can draw comfort from a number of studies that show how better customer experiences lead to better performance.  For example, Temkin Group’s study of 10,000 consumers showed that 81% of advocates are very likely to buy again; only 16% of unhappy customers share the same intent.   At AeroMexico, a one-point change either way in their Net Promoter Score had a $6m impact on the bottom line.  And in the UK, Papworth Trust says two-thirds of disabled travellers would travel by rail more often if it were easier.

Designing experiences and employee training for the right customer outcomes can take many forms.  One tool that’s often used is customer journey mapping.  The key is not to simply document processes but to create a springboard from which commercially successful and empathetic experiences can be made and measured.  We should think about passengers as being real people rather than fitting the generic segmentation stereotypes of “business travellers”, “families” or even “PRM”s.  The maps will then help share internally what it’s really like to be a passenger and what it should be like, through keen observations and a rich understanding of travellers’ motivations, expectations, fears and hopes at each stage of the journey.

 

I’ve a 13-year-old son with Fragile X, a learning disability on the autistic spectrum.  We’ve had awful and wonderful experiences at airports.  At Birmingham International for example, we found employees at the gate who took everything in their stride.  They were not perplexed at all by Charlie’s flapping, his strange vocal sounds or his lack of social understanding about how a queue works.

There are other airports we will avoid purely because of the noise from hand-dryers in the toilets.  To Charlie, they burst into life as a monstrous 90dB howl.  It scares him and makes him highly anxious in the days leading up to the flight and while we’re at the airport.  So those airports are now off the list of choices, for us at least.

The way he deals with sudden noise is to make his own commotion.  It will trigger a meltdown that will see him go through a cycle of angst, anger and distress.  It’s a sequence that we can rarely break into, hence why it’s to be avoided if at all possible.  He won’t process instructions to “calm down” but he will eventually come out the other side very upset and very apologetic and will want to know people are there for him when he does.

It can be an uneasy time for everyone. At Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport however, if a passenger has an episode in the security lanes the queue management tapes are quietly moved to redirect other passengers away. They leave nature to take its course rather than make things worse by ushering the person out of the way in the hope that no-one noticed.

Physical disabilities are easier to recognise, yet this can still trigger inappropriate responses from airport staff.  US daytime-TV host Meredith Vieira, whose husband has multiple sclerosis, talks about the times when he uses a wheelchair at an airport rather than a cane.  Suddenly people talk to her, not him.  “It’s like he becomes invisible,” she says.calming-dog

Recognising the potential for unpredictable behaviour is not easy.  It’s great therefore to see initiatives such as a downloadable butterfly image for carers’ smartphones at Liverpool airport and wristbands at Manchester.  They send subtle signals to trained employees that there may be untypical behaviour ahead.

Likewise, the unobtrusive lapel badges at Los Angeles and the dementia champions walking the floor at London Gatwick.  Calming therapy dogs are another great example where everyone, not just those with a disability, benefits.

Emotionally and physically, many will be running on empty.  They may not remember when they last had a good night’s sleep.  They may have been in and out of hospital for countless operations.  They may have lost loved ones who had undiagnosed conditions.  They may spend their days helping others go to the toilet or prevent them from self-harming.  They may see the world in very different ways to us.  They may feel they are always being judged and continually need to apologise.

Their best experiences are therefore ones that simply work and have no friction in them.

Such circumstances put everyday niggles and frustrations at the airport into perspective.  Inflexible policies that prevent common sense prevailing, unhelpful attitudes and rushed environments that are not respectful make it one more challenge to endure.

Get it right and they become valuable advocates.  Get it wrong and they are unlikely to have the time or inclination to let you know.  They might tell their friends if they have the energy but they will almost certainly choose an alternative airport next time or simply stay at home.

 

Speaking at the Passenger Terminal Conference in Cologne earlier this year, Craig Leiner, transportation co-ordinator with Natick Community Services Department, said: “When we get it right we make people’s lives better; when we get it wrong we make their lives harder.”  The message is clear: don’t be the straw that breaks their back.

The stakes are high for all concerned.  But if airports and the partners they outsource their experiences to have a deeper understanding of people with a disability, everyone profits.  Even Ryanair, once thought of as being very ‘anti customers’, acknowledges that its Always Getting Better programme is turning better experiences into higher revenue, load factors and forward bookings.

Creating the right environment where interactions are easy and calm suits pretty much everyone.  People with a disability of some kind help expand our thinking about what those experiences should be like.  In the UK, a fifth of the population has a disability and estimates put their spending power at over £200bn.    It’s therefore an opportunity not an obligation.

Lord Blunkett, chair of easyJet’s Special Assistance Advisory Group, summed it up neatly in Cologne when he said: “Not only is it the right thing to do, but treating people with decency is a commercial win for everyone”.

It really is.

 

 

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