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We Are Imperfect Customers

by Linda W. Arms

This is a different kind of post but wanted to share with you.   I’m sharing this with many customer service providers and groups via LinkedIn and other sites.   Here it is:


Our Imperfect Customers

How do you view your customers?    Are they like you?     Are they at the top of their game as you might be?    Probably not.     We have many imperfect customers who need special attention or, at least, an awareness of their challenges.   I used to always see my customers as having similar cognitive abilities as I and my co-workers.     After suffering a brain injury 8 years ago, my views have changed.    There are millions of people in the United States who have cognitive impairments so you might take a second look at who is your customer.

Those of us with cognitive impairments travel, shop, visit web sites, visit business offices, talk on the phone, drive …. you name it.   For many of us, we do it with great difficulty.   When we’re done, we are often exhausted.    For example, just doing a simple thing like grocery shopping was a tremendously difficult task.    There were days I would decide not to go, or I’d walk into the store and right back out again because it was too overwhelming;  other times I’d fill my cart with an item or two and then just leave it and go home; or after shopping, I’d go home and nap for 2 hours.

I spent over 25 years in a customer service role providing a variety of financial and information technology services to a wide range of customers.     As a manager of a help desk and other I.T. services, I was always looking at “who is my customer” and “what do they need”, trying always to improve their experience with our services.      I looked at our Help Desk customers in terms of their role in the organization and their different needs (engineers, administrators, highway maintenance workers, etc.).    I saw other sets of customers based on how they accessed the organization’s network (hard-wired, dial-in, VPN, etc. ) to work with various applications.     There were other types of customers also but I never considered the cognitive health of those we served.

There are many people like me whose cognitive abilities have been affected by trauma, disease or other causes.     I look fine and have since my accident but in the early years of my recovery my cognitive abilities were greatly affected.      Impaired cognitive abilities cause problems with awareness, perception, reasoning, ability to focus, memory, judgment and many other things.    Since every injured or diseased brain is different, there are many symptoms.    Our brains control everything in our bodies including the ability to walk, see, talk, comprehend written and/or spoken communications, perform math calculations, make decisions, balance, move our hands, hear, and the list goes on and on.    Most of us have problems with the speed at which our brains process anything.    The world moves and speaks way too fast for many of us.   Many people with an injured or diseased brain have problems with our visual systems.   Some of us have problems with sounds where we become overwhelmed by too many sounds, too much volume, and sensitivity to certain types of sounds.

How Many of Us Are Out Here in the United States?

  • 1,700,000 people suffer a traumatic brain injury each year
  • 800,000 people suffer a stroke each year
  • 70,000 people are diagnosed with a brain tumor each year
  • 30,000 people suffer a brain aneurysm each year
  • 5,000,000 people live with Alzheimer’s
  • There are many others with diseases that can affect cognition including Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis
  • There are many who live with an acquired brain injury due to anoxia, bad drug interactions and other things that damage the brain
  • One in 5 veterans returning from the recent wars has a brain injury

The Challenge of Phone Calls

Interacting on phones can be very difficult for those with cognitive problems.    There are many steps that our brain needs to process when we make a call and we can easily become overwhelmed.   First we have to find the phone number and dial it.   Next, we have to comprehend the automated message or what the person on the other end is saying.   Our brain has to process the accents or dialects of the person.   We have to try to adjust to the speed of their speech.   Our brain has to work harder when the person is not speaking clearly or there are distractions we hear in the background.   We may not be able to keep up with the speed at which the information is coming to us.   Unfamiliar terminology throws us off.   Complex sentence structures overwhelm us.   Sarcasm and innuendo may not be understood.

The Overwhelm of Stores and Offices

Walking into a store or office can be overwhelming with a cognitive impairment.    We may be having problems with balance so as we walk in, see and process our relatively unfamiliar surroundings, we are immediately thrown off.   Our brain is working overtime to address just the balance issue.

Then, there are so many things in the establishment that we see and our brain has to process.    Fluorescent lighting is more difficult for our brains to process adding more to the overwhelm we are feeling.    Next we have to find what we are looking for, we have to scan objects, make decisions.

We have to interact with the office worker or clerk who may be speaking way too fast for us, or mumbling, or speaking with an accent.     Constant interruptions throw us off.   Everything becomes more difficult.   When someone asks us a question, it may take us a few moments to respond.   Many times, because we have not yet responded, the person asking the question will not pause for very long before asking again and trying a different approach.   Not good – we need some quiet moments to gather our thoughts and get them out our mouth.   Constant talking interferes with our ability to think.

The Get-Me-Out-of-Here Web Sites

Busy, busy web sites are everywhere.    People with injured and diseased brains have loads of issues with these web sites.    Remember many of us having problems processing visual input.   Our brains have to process the words we see and comprehend their meanings.   Our brains have to process the moving components on the page.    We have to process the choices we need to make from the menus.    We have to process every bit of it just like a computer processes every step of a routine.

Flashy sites with many graphics and moving components are everywhere.    It seems that the flashier, the better, but not for many for us.   We have problems with many types, sizes and colors of fonts covering the pages.   There are actually fonts that are easier for our brains to process but it is usually not a consideration when a web site is built.    Sites with dark or brightly colored backgrounds can be very difficult to look at and visually process.

My brain injury caused problems with visual processing.   I could not look at some sites without getting dizzy, almost nauseous.   I could not look for more than a few moments.   When I did stick with it, trying to find or understand the content was painful.   I could not think because of the visual effects of the web page.    There was one site I did visit fairly often but it had a moving graphic which I covered by taping paper to my screen.

As you can see, I am now a different kind of customer.    I look fine.   I’m much better than a few years ago but I still have problems, like with that young man yesterday who spoke too, too fast and actually made me feel dizzy and not see straight.   I had to ask him several times to repeat himself.    My brain just does not take in the information that quickly.

I now see that there is a whole different set of customers that I never considered that deserve some acknowledgement.   I am one of them.   We use your services.   We buy your products.  We visit your web sites.    We use your help desks.   We pay you money.    Perhaps you can learn more about those of us with cognitive impairments so you have more awareness of our needs.    There are so many of us, the imperfect customer.