In a perfect world, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing would be able to communicate and function in a manner equivalent to their peers. But think about the last time you had a flight cancelled after you had already checked in and reached your departure gate. We have all been there. What follows is usually chaos—almost 200 people simultaneously rushing to the ticketing line or calling customer service to find a new flight. The process can be pretty stressful for anyone. Now imagine having to manage that same process as a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person. Whether communicating in person or over the phone, the language barrier adds a layer of difficulty to the situation.
When a person who communicates with American Sign Language (ASL) needs to call a customer service hotline, thousands of them turn to something called a Video Relay Service (VRS), which is essentially a Skype-like program that bridges the gap between the visual nature of ASL and the verbal nature of communication over the phone. The ASL user signs his/her message to an interpreter via a video chat service, and the interpreter then speaks the translated message to the call recipient. It is an ingenious process, to be certain, but it is not without flaws.
The flaws begin with human nature. Any message relayed between more than two people is bound to wind up somewhat lost in translation. Recall those childhood games of “Telephone” on the playground at school. Like any third-party communication structure, the interpreter in the middle of a VRS exchange is bound to misinterpret portions of the message. On top of that, the act of having to translate adds time and confusion to the conversation. A Deaf or Hard of Hearing person attempting to quickly change his/her flight often winds up experiencing something more like a debate on the floor of the UN, where every sentence a person speaks has to be translated into other languages and perspectives before the response can begin. The communication breakdowns and cultural misunderstandings tend to be frequent.
So you are a Deaf person standing toward the back of a customer service line at the airport, frantically trying to explain your situation to an interpreter on a video screen, who then tries to quickly relay that message over a telephone line to the customer service representative helping you rebook your flight, and the whole mess is like one big game of “Telephone” staged on the floor of the UN. To be certain, VRS is a wonderful service. Before its existence, the call I just described would not even have been possible. But with every advance in technology, we open new worlds of possibility. Today, new technology points to an even better way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to communicate—and it is a win-win solution for everyone involved.
That win-win solution revolves around a simple concept: cut out the middleman. Imagine if a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person could connect directly to an airline customer service representative who uses ASL. Messages relay quicker and more efficiently. The frustration related to miscommunication evaporates. Stress levels lower. Customer service ratings soar.
This direct communication strategy recently changed the game for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose Disability Rights Office implemented a direct video communications solution in 2014. The FCC cut out the VRS middleman by hiring and training a team of customer service representatives who are fluent in ASL. “It is time for people who speak with their hands and hear with their eyes to enjoy modern advancements in communications technologies,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on the day his organization announced the program’s launch.
The initiative has led to improved communications between ASL callers and customer service representatives by drastically reducing the misinterpretation factor. The resultant rise in customer satisfaction has been nothing short of astonishing. But beyond that, the strategy has dramatically reduced cost to the FCC, as the expense related to the technology for direct video communications is much lower than that of VRS. Just as importantly, it has also opened up new career opportunities for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
The FCC is not alone. More and more companies are hiring a more diverse workforce and individuals with disabilities. Communication Services for the Deaf (CSD) believes in making this transition possible through its “CSD Direct” program. CSD Direct is a way for Deaf and Hard of Hearing customers to communicate directly with customer service representatives fluent in ASL. This optimizes the customer experience for both the caller and the rep, and on the corporate level, it unlocks a huge market of two to three million Deaf and Hard of Hearing customers. In a recent survey, over 93 percent of Deaf respondents stated that it is important that they are able to communicate in American Sign Language.
Many companies avoid hiring Deaf or Hard of Hearing customer service representatives due mainly to the anticipated added cost. But CSD Direct eliminates that concern by building and maintaining a customer contact center program in American Sign Language on behalf of the subscribing business. The effort creates a superior customer experience, increases long-term sales, and actually lowers customer service agent costs by reducing frustrating and repetitive calls and virtually eliminating time spent supporting video relay calls to toll-free numbers. Call efficiency improves, as eliminating the middleman allows for substantially quicker communication. Call confidentiality is more secure, as well, with the company that subscribes to CSD Direct no longer having to worry about a third-party interpreter having access to potentially sensitive information.
Another key benefit that should not be overlooked is that this one-to-one interaction helps build brand loyalty—not just through the improved customer service experience, but also because a company can count on its trained employees to deliver the corporate message more accurately
than any third party. For instance, Disney refers to their employees as “cast members,” a fact that might not translate as well if passed between a third party who is unaware of Disney’s corporate culture. Having an in-house staff trained in ASL allows businesses to pass its unique terminology, language, and culture on to the Deaf or Hard of Hearing customer. CSD Direct allows companies to enjoy a direct connection that better reflects their brand.
Continuing on the subject of culture, the reason CSD is able to provide such unique insight into the solution is that there is more than just a language barrier at play. Deaf culture is rich with its own traditions and social norms—elements that do not translate as well to interpreters who speak ASL as a second language. CSD brings with it over forty years of culture experience and operational knowhow within the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. This allows them to train ASL customer service representatives to any company’s requirements. That four decades of experience also connects them on a deeper level with the Deaf community, which opens up the opportunity to develop creative marketing campaigns that educate about a company’s newly implemented CSD Direct services.
The company that uses CSD Direct projects the image of being more inclusive and accessible. This boosts the brand and elevates them to national recognition within the Deaf community. It also contributes to the effort to hire for not just quality, but also diversity, as CSD Direct creates career opportunities for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. The customer base expands, as well, as the company can now reach two to three million new customers. Accessibility and customer service improves through the reduction of misunderstanding between the customer and company representative.
According to Andres Topia, “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work.” In any industry, the call for greater diversity has been in play for decades. But the future is with inclusion. For any company looking to broaden its inclusion efforts to a pool of two to three million new customers, CSD Direct is the clearest, quickest, most comprehensive, and most cost- effective strategy to open up new lines of communication with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.