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New way to look at customer care

No one likes calling customer service helplines; it can be long, difficult and, even if the person speaks perfectly, often hard to understand and be sure of what is being said. Now, imagine all that if you are deaf or hard-of-hearing...

A young French company has turned the problem on its head and employs deaf and hard-of-hearing people as fully-trained customer services staff working on behalf of several large companies and answering queries using a choice of French Sign Language (LSF) via webcam or live web chat.

The move gets rid of interpreters trying to act as intermediaries between the two parties, which is blamed for delays and increased frustration on both sides.

Called Deafi – a play on the English word ‘deaf’ and the French défi, which means challenge – it provides customer service staff for companies such as SFR, Engie, Free, La Poste and others in insurance, utilities, banks, and healthcare.

Founder Jean-Charles Correa said it “allows the deaf and hard-of-hearing to be autonomous when accessing services.

“This is something that hearing people take for granted. I’d like the hearing impaired to be able to do the same.”

When a deaf or hard-of hearing customer needs to contact a service provider they click on a dedicated button on the contact page to reach a Deafi adviser. They can choose whether to use sign language  or web chat (many people with hearing impairments do not understand LSF, for example, so would opt for web chat).

A smartphone app, Deafline, is also available.

Disabling hearing loss affects about 5% of the population, according to the World Health Organisation, and Mr Correa said making services accessible to the hearing- impaired was “both a moral obligation and a pressing practical concern”.

Under the new French Law for a Digital Republic it will soon become a legal requirement, too.

Deafi also fulfils a legal obligation to employ disabled people – companies with more than 20 staff must have a minimum 6% of workers who are classified as disabled – and the hearing- impaired are far more likely to be unemployed than their hearing counterparts.

In all, 80% of its staff have a disability and it is certified as ‘adapted’ under French law, which allows it to step in to help another company fulfill its obligations.

Mr Correa found his first staff by going to associations to reach out into the community, but said this had changed: “Now nearly all our posts are filled by people who have written to us seeking work.”

Deafi also takes on people via mentoring schemes, whereby clients recommend people they know who have a hearing disability and are seeking work.

In the future Mr Correa hopes Deafi will be able to take on public sector clients – although he notes wryly, “engaging with the government is somewhat challenging” – and feels this will become easier once the Law for a Digital Republic’s obligations begin to be understood.

Given that many companies use the telephone as their main means of contact with customers, creating 300,000 phone-based customer relations posts in France, he feels Deafi’s client base will continue to grow as it offers better access to customer service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. He added: “Quality of service, not just accessibility, is at the heart of our strategy.”

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