Front-line staff, social access and inclusive experiences

The recovery from Covid-19 is challenging many businesses to rethink their services and the needs of their customers. Part of that is challenging the future role of staff in serving their customers. In this article, we explore this in the context of that often-forgotten group of customers, those with disabilities.

When you think of accessibility, what do you picture? For many of us, our understanding of accessibility is limited to the physical: ramps, handrails and lifts. Even these are often kept out of sight or feel like an afterthought; an accessible entrance separate to the main entrance, hidden ‘around the back’ or next to the bins.

However, these physical elements alone miss the equally important social accessibility – we might define that as access and inclusion created through considered communication, positive perception and mentality, and empathy rather than sympathy.  In a recent survey run by disability charity Scope, 67% of the British public said that they would actively avoid a disabled person, showing just how much work there is still be done in terms of social access

Emerging from COVID-19 there has been a new-found appreciation for those at the forefront of our businesses: the visible faces of the organisations we transact with, and the positive impact they have when delivering essential services. We’ve seen more emphasis on protecting those of us in society who need greater support, and staff have been retrained and upskilled to change their behaviour and processes to assist those with additional needs. If this is possible in the most uncertain times we have ever faced, why should it stop here?

Investing in staff to deliver better experiences for customers is more than just a moral obligation and far from new; one common model for this is the Service-Profit Value Chain. According to the Purple Pound, poor customer services or accessibility has led to 75% of disabled people and their families turning away from a UK business. This lack of investment in social access results in businesses losing out on their share of the spending power of disabled people, worth an estimated £249 billion. 

(Source: Harvard Business Review – Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work).

Consider your the customer journey: how and where do your customers rely on front-line staff for their experience and trust in your service, or the ability to access it at all? The ability of your staff to empathise and deliver great levels of service has a significant impact on customer experience, customer retention and reputation.

So why then do they tend to be roles with low pay, little progression and minimal training? Employers must invest in thinking about social access and equip employees with the tools they need. According to 2019 Euan’s Guide data, 42% of respondents said that staff attitudes were a barrier to access. 

Airport assistance services are a prime example of how poor social access can have a detrimental impact. A Which? Travel survey carried out with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) found that the assistance experience not only leaves around a quarter of disabled passengers dissatisfied, but had compounding effects on passenger confidence to travel in the future.

A room with wheelchairs

But there are areas of progress. The sunflower lanyard is an opt-in scheme first developed at Gatwick Airport and now used widely throughout the aviation and other industries such as retail, including Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Passengers wear the lanyard as a signal to staff that they may have a hidden disability or need more assistance. Good social access may involve asking difficult but necessary questions to gain much-needed information and insight. How these are asked and delivered can create understanding that produces inclusive results.

Image: Gatwick Airport

As part of a wider inclusive design project for a major London airport, we spoke to passengers with a range of impairments to understand the impact of social access on their airport journey. Exploring what they would ask of front line staff, their responses were simple:

The most helpful thing that staff could do for me is to have a good and positive attitude and listen to me. I'm the expert and I can tell them what help I need. - Becky

Interact with me as a human being. Be natural, relax. I'm just another customer who needs a bit more help. - Dan

The human touch and the sensitivity to understand someone's needs and the stress levels involved would be very useful. - Jon

So as many businesses rethink how they operate and interact with their customers, they will also be reimagining how the customer-staff interaction will go. There is a great opportunity, especially with the rise of digital services, to change but not lose that human touch that we have all been reminded has such value. But as we do this, the challenge is to consider that widest range of customers, including disabled customers, and to ensure that we deliver social as well as physical access.

Be a champion of inclusive, accessible experiences. We’ve seen how inclusive design can empower staff, customers and bring positive change to your business. Speak to us about how we can do this. 


“In these times we’ve reacquainted ourselves with who is really important to us as a society, and the difference these individuals make to our service experiences…” Keep reading


Stephanie Clarke

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 + 9 =