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Serving Customers with Mental Illness


Written by:  Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work

Another stressful day at the bank! My aunt would recount the horrors of a teller suspiciously inspecting her up and down, giggling and chatting with her co-workers about what a bad person she was.  My aunt would then explain to me how the bank no longer liked her since she started making withdrawals from her account and she feared that they would no longer want to accept her as a customer.  Maria would retell the experience in the most convincing manner, explaining to me how the staff stared at her causing the customers who were in line to glare with curiosity and caution.  By the end of the conversation, I was so angered by how they treated my aunt; I decided to call the bank manager and report the teller.  I wanted to ensure that they would never treat her like this or anyone again —after all, she was a loyal and valued customer.

As the years went on, I realized the complaint phone calls that I made for my aunt about rude staff, might have resulted in a lot of decent employees getting reprimanded for actions they had never committed.

My aunt was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder when she was in her 50’s, and then the lightbulb in my head went off.  Perhaps the incidents she disclosed were based on her fears of persecution and that they had never occurred?

lewy-body-dementia-2965713_640-e1515973823994.jpgYears later, I would hear her crying and shaking in fear about how her landlord wanted to evict her. I would try to reassure her that it would never happen.  Her apartment was clean, she was quiet, and she paid her rent on time –the ideal tenant.  However, each month, I would have to reassure her of this, but it did not always work.  She would go to the landlord’s office and directly ask them if they were planning to evict her. They must have eventually figured out that my aunt was not well, and thankfully and remarkably they were always polite to her.

When she got older and was no longer able to live on her own, she moved to a nursing home which she liked.  However, there again, she thought the administrators were going to kick her out on the street, and her room-mate was part of the conspiracy.

Her whole life was built on fear.  Fear of every sort.  Fear every day.

Sometimes, you will encounter people like Maria whether you are a public service employee or a customer service representative.  People suffering from hallucinations will likely be the most difficult to serve. You want to make sure you do not aggravate or trigger their fear.

Regardless of how challenging people with severe mental illnesses can be to serve, it is important to recognize they are also customers with buying power and deserve respect and equitable service. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also the law in Ontario.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when serving customers with severe mental illnesses:

  1.  Although you may be in the position of power in your role, try not to emphasize your authority but instead act more as a helper, assisting them to find the product or service they need.
  2. Establish a rapport with them, by saying their name if you know it.  Give them a simple compliment.
  3. If someone is delusional, don’t try to correct his or her hallucinations.  Avoid taking on the role of the therapist.   You can try calling their name a few times to see if they can refocus on why they need your service.
  4. On occasion, a person with a severe mental illness may make threats.  Be aware they rarely carry them out.
  5. Avoid drawing any unnecessary attention to someone who is acting out or behaving differently.  It is disrespectful to do so and staring or making loud comments to them does not help.

For more information on how to provide courteous customer service to people with mental illnesses, subscribe to our upcoming digital magazine, Your Diverse Customer which will be coming out in Spring 2018.  Our first issue will be devoted to serving customers with mental illnesses.  It will feature interviews, tips and strategies, global trends, resources, case studies and more.

To learn more about Your Diverse Customer and purchasing details, please email me at info@yourdiversityatwork.com with “Your Diverse Customer” in the subject line.

 

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Accessibility Revisited: Who is Your Fort Knox Office Serving?


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By:  Evelina Silveira, President,  Diversity at Work

In my line of work, I do a lot of web research and phone calling, gaining exposure to a host of companies and services.  It amazes me how many barriers organizations have placed on the public that they serving.  Whether it is a non-profit or a private company, you are often faced with one barrier after another, sometimes falling into a deep black hole of an automated message or an email address as a point of contact.

For example, the other day I found myself contacting agencies that serve some of our most vulnerable populations:  people with addictions, mental health issues and new immigrants.  All I wanted was to speak to someone about training, but there was no live person to answer the phone.  I thought to myself:  What if I had been someone with an addiction that finally got up enough courage to call for help, only to find that I not only had to listen to a number of options to choose from, I would have to remember them all to make the correct selection?  Unfortunately, dialing “zero’ was not an option to get to a live person, it just sent me back to the main menu.   Similarly, I have encountered this automated approach to mental health services, and anger management programs.   It says a lot about our society when a pleasant, warm and caring voice over the telephone replaced by a cold inaccessible automated system that screams out:  “You’re not important enough to have a staff person speak to you directly”  or “We want you as our clients, but on our terms”. And yet, this is exactly what these people need who are in crisis and seeking help.  Someone who is willing to take the time to speak to them when no one else has.  A credit card-like company approach to streaming calls is not the best recipe for a not for profit to take.

Despite fielding thousands of calls each day, the universities and hospitals do have a person answering the telephone.  It is good public relations, and provides a service that is quickly becoming extinct.  Bravo to them, for recognizing that people need information and going through an menu of options is inaccessible for some people with different kinds of barriers.

It is also interesting to note the new trend with leaving telephone numbers off a business’s website.  In some cases, all that is left is an email address.  Others will make it virtually impossible for you to contact them, even if you are their customer.  The message to the consumer is:   “Don’t call us, maybe we will call you if you leave us an email“.

With our increasing emphasis on accessibility and customer service standards we need to bear in mind that the telephone is the first point of contact for many people –especially our most vulnerable.  While machines have been successful in replacing many tasks designed for humans, a kind, well-informed person on the other end of the line makes a difference.  Let’s not forget that accessible customer service standards are the law now in Ontario.  If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to ask yourself :  Is my organization open to the public or have I created a Fort Knox nightmare for my customers and clients?

 

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