People 1st — the sector skills council for the hospitality, leisure, tourism and travel (HLTT) industries — is warning business not to lose sight of serving those with disabilities as it launches a new campaign to train 200,000 hospitality and tourism staff ahead of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Brian Wisdom, CEO of People 1st, comments: “Businesses will be short sighted if they don’t harness the power of the Paralympic Games and ensure their service is accessible and disability-friendly.

Over ten million people are classified as having a disability in the UK — equivalent to 20 percent of businesses’ customer base. Over a year this market is worth £80 billion. Good customer service is essential; 66 percent choose businesses renowned for good customer service and 83 percent have taken their business to a more accessible competitor[1].”

People 1st, with the support of VisitEngland, is introducing the WorldHost training programme to raise the standard and delivery of customer service training in the UK. The programme includes additional learning modules on serving customers with disabilities. It covers topics such as knowing the right language to use and being aware of feelings, misconceptions and biases.

Marc Woods, Paralympic gold-medallist and BBC commentator, says: “Disability is always relative to the task in hand and there are some very simple things businesses can do to be welcoming to those with disabilities.

Access is often an issue, but what makes a meaningful difference is the way in which people behave. Ignorance breeds fear and debunking some of the myths around disability will have a real impact on how staff treat disabled customers. Simply remembering that respectful and friendly service makes a lasting impression whether your customer is disabled or not.”

WorldHost has already been used successfully at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where it was used to train 39,000 volunteers and tourism staff earlier this year. It has the backing of the Institute of Directors and leading businesses including McDonald’s, who will be embedding the WorldHost customer service training in their employee development programme, and Flybe.

Wisdom says: “Putting aside equality obligations, ensuring people with disabilities are served simply makes good business sense. There is a lot of focus on developing the infrastructure for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games but not enough on ensuring we have the softer skills needed to welcome the world to Britain, and this is particularly true for meeting the needs of customers with disabilities. It’s anticipated that up to half a million visitors will arrive for the Games and we need to ensure their experience of Britain is a very positive one.

“We plan to do something about what everyone recognises is a real need. The HLTT sector is one of the UK’s largest employers and the ‘visitor economy’ contributes over 8% of GDP. If we reach our target of 200,000 it will make a real difference to the experience people have as well as the revenue generated.”

The UK’s HLTT sector needs to raise its game in customer service standards if it is to take advantage of the estimated £2bn[2] that could be generated from visitors around the Olympics.

The UK is ranked a disappointing 14th in the international customer service rankings and 13th for its perceived ‘Welcome’ by the annual Nation Brand Index Survey. People 1st’s State of the Nation 2010 research report highlighted that 65 percent of businesses reporting skills gaps stated staff lacked necessary customer service skills.

WorldHost’s tips for improving communication with customers who have disabilities:

  1. Treat all customers as you would like to be treated
  2. Make no assumptions or generalistaions
  3. Pity is not an emotion that disabled people appreciate
  4. Disabled people are not all alike
  5. There are ranges of abilities and not everyone requires or wants your help
  6. Do not let one bad experience cloud your judgement
  7. Do not patronise
  8. Do not be afraid to ask what you can do to help

By Max CLarke