To create an inclusive workplace, you first need to understand what visible difference is and your role in reducing discrimination at work.
Did you know that people with a visible difference are more likely to receive poor customer service because of their appearance?
As a customer service professional, you know how important it is to provide every customer with the best possible experience. We also understand that it can be challenging to serve someone with a visible difference, particularly if you haven’t done it before.
On this page, we share some tips and guidance on how to provide good customer service to people living with a visible difference or disfigurement.
Our research shows that people with a visible difference are regularly ignored by shop assistants (27%) and receive bad service because of their visible difference (26%). Not only is this wrong, it is bad for the organisation’s reputation and may even be against the law, as people with a “severe disfigurement” are protected under the Equality Act 2010.
“I was born with Crouzon Syndrome, which affected both my head and my face.
I don’t always have problems but when I do, I don’t forget it. My most recent experience was in a restaurant in London with one of my closest friends. We’d had a great day with each other but as soon as we got to the restaurant, I was completely ignored by the waitress. She gave all her attention to my friend and didn’t bat an eyelid at me. I would try and catch her eye and she’d look around, down or back at my friend. I thought, ‘Hello, I’m the one talking here’.
I’m not someone who gets cross, I just get on with it. Also, I didn’t want to bring my friend down by talking about how awful our waitress was, I felt it would ruin the night. So I kept it to myself, and felt annoyed inside.”
We know that although you want to treat all customers equally and provide good customer service, you may find it challenging to serve someone with a visible difference, particularly if this is a new situation for you. You may be embarrassed, upset or surprised by the customer’s appearance.
That’s OK, it is normal to feel this way. The important thing is to be aware of your reaction and quickly move on, providing the same level of customer service you would any other customer. If you want to understand more about your initial reaction take a look at our unconscious biased information.
Keep reading for advice on how to manage your reaction and provide good customer service to those with a visible difference.
Here’s an easy way to remember how to the give the best SERVICE to a customer with a visible difference:
Smile: Show your customer that you are approachable and that they are welcome. It can be daunting coming into a public space, especially when you look different, so help the customer relax with a warm smile.
Eye contact. Look the customer in the eye. Don’t go to the other extreme and stare – just make normal eye contact as you would with any other customer. If you are struggling to make direct eye contact, look at the bridge of their nose – this has the same effect.
Respect. You might have to manage your response. That’s OK, it’s natural to feel surprise when someone looks noticeably different. But show respect and never draw attention to your customer’s appearance. If they mention it, listen to what they say and use similar language. For example, a customer might prefer to say, “I survived a fire” rather than “I have burn scars”. Be guided by their description.
Value your customer. Don’t patronise your customer by talking to the person they’re with rather than directly to them. Never assume they are less intelligent just because they look different. Be friendly, ask how their day is going – it will make them feel welcome and more likely to come back. Treat your customer with the value they deserve.
If in doubt, ask. A simple, open question like, “Can I help you?” or, “Is there anything you need?” allows your customer to tell you in their own words how you can best attend to them. Don’t make assumptions about your customer’s condition, or their needs. Ask open questions instead.
Calm. Don’t panic if you get it wrong. Stay calm and considerate and keep trying. For example, if a customer’s condition affects their speech, politely ask them to repeat if you don’t understand. Remember, they will be used to having to persevere to be understood.
Equality. Remember that people with what are known under the law as “severe disfigurements” are protected by the Equality Act from unlawful discrimination. Treating them with respect is not only good customer service, it will also strengthen your company’s reputation and make customers want to return. Remember, “severe disfigurements” is a legal term and may not be how the customer describes their own condition, scar or mark.
Here are some more tips to help you provide customers with a visible difference with good customer service:
- Welcome them just like you would any other customer.
- Ask what they need. Never make assumptions or think you know best. Really listen to what they’re telling you. Listen and make recommendations based on their needs.
- Don’t rush. You may be tempted to get the experience over with as quickly as possible or there may be a queue forming behind. Take your time
- Ensure you provide a professional customer service experience for them, just like everyone else.
“I visited an optician for my regular sight test. The sight test was a pleasant experience. The optician was lovely, and I was given a new prescription. I was led down the stairs to be introduced to an optical assistant. As I was walking down the stairs, I could see the assistant looking uncomfortable. It was almost like they were trying to avoid the interaction.
During the three-way handover the assistant was shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact. After I had been introduced, the assistant found it difficult to speak, ask questions or articulate offers. In fact, they were babbling.
I was taken by surprise by such a severe reaction and hoping that other staff and customers in the store had noticed. I didn’t feel confident in purchasing glasses so decided to leave the store. Simply a bit of eye contact and acknowledging me as a person would have made a big difference.”
In general, you shouldn’t mention the customer’s visible difference. However, there are some situations where you might need to. Using the right language relating to visible difference is crucial to good customer service. This section deals with how to talk about the customer’s appearance sensitively and appropriately.
Do I need to bring up the customer’s appearance?
Before raising the subject of the customer’s appearance, consider whether you really need to.
For example, curiosity is not a good reason to bring up the customer’s visible difference. Would you point out other things about the customer’s appearance, such as their skin colour, haircut or clothing?
Use the customer’s language
If the situation does require you to discuss their condition, make sure that, if possible, they raise the subject first and use the language they use about their condition. For example, the recognised term for a condition, mark or scar affecting someone’s appearance is “visible difference” – use this term whenever in doubt. However, some people may use other language to refer to their appearance, including “disfigurement”. Be attentive also to whether they talk about a mark, scar, burn, condition and so on.
Avoid judgemental language
Language can be used to evaluate a person’s appearance, passing a negative or positive judgement depending on the words chosen.
Using negative words such as “terribly”, “horrifically” or “ugly” to describe a person’s visible difference pass a negative value judgement on that person’s appearance. Negative language like this can be offensive and upsetting.
Think about how you would feel if someone described you as “ugly” or “horribly scarred”. This is very different to using neutral language to say that someone “has scars”, is a “burns survivor” or “lives with a visible difference”.
Dos and don’ts
|Don’t say||Do say|
|Facial deformity||Visible difference|
|Facial abnormality||Visible difference|
|Facial defect||Visible difference|
Why? Because “visible difference” is more neutral and less negative than words like ‘defect’, ‘deformity’ and “abnormality”.
|Don’t say||Do say|
|Scarred people||People who have a visible difference|
|Disfigured people||People who have a visible difference|
Why? Because describing the person first, rather than their difference, respects them as an individual, rather than labelling them or defining them by their appearance, which is only one part of who they are.
|Don’t say||Do say|
|Victim||Survivor (such as “burns survivor”)|
|Suffering from…||Has (such as “has eczema”)|
Why? “Survivor” is more positive than victim. Saying “has eczema” or “has Crouzon Syndrome” is simply a factual statement rather than a judgement.
How would you describe…?
Select the option that you feel reflects good customer service then scroll to see the answer.
Which of the following statements do you think are more appropriate when describing David?
- “David survived a fire”.
- “David’s face is badly scarred”.
Answer: Option 1 is correct.
Why? “David survived a fire” simply states a fact rather than describing the visible difference. Also, describing the visible difference has a negative impact rather than simply stating the facts, particularly if you use language such as “badly” which reflects a subjective judgement.
Which of the following statements do you think are more appropriate when describing Clare?
- “Clare has a cleft palate”.
- “Clare has a deformed mouth”.
Answer: Option 1 is correct.
Why? “Clare has a cleft palate” uses the name of the condition. Naming the condition, if you know what it is, simply states fact. If you don’t know the name of the condition you could say, “Clare has a visible difference” or “Clare has a condition that affects her appearance” instead.
Multiple choice quiz
Here are some situations you may come across as a customer service professional – select the option you think demonstrates good customer service then scroll for the answer.
David has a large birthmark on his face, which covers his right eye. He’s in your restaurant and has a few questions about the menu. You wonder whether he has a facial injury that affects his vision and if that is why he is asking questions. Which of the following responses is appropriate?
- Avoid looking at his eye or making eye contact.
- Ask about his eye and if he has trouble reading, and if that is why he is asking questions.
- Make eye contact and answer questions in a friendly and efficient manner.
- Make eye contact but give short answers to questions so that the conversation ends quicker.
Answer: Option 3.
Jim has neurofibromatosis, which has the effect of making his face look lumpy and asymmetrical. His head is also quite large. He comes into your shop to buy a winter hat. What do you do?
- Talk slowly to make sure that he can understand you.
- Ask questions about his appearance, if his condition causes him discomfort and if you can help in any way with it.
- Ask if the hat is suitable for someone like him.
- Carry out the transaction politely, without mentioning his appearance.
Answer: Option 4.
Salma has severe acne and facial scarring. She comes to your makeup counter. Which of the following responses is appropriate?
- Assume she will be looking for a certain product so ask her if you can point her in the right direction.
- Pick out what you think she needs to cover the scars.
- Ask what makeup she’s looking for today.
- Avoid eye contact as it probably makes her feel uncomfortable.
Answer: Option 3.
Hannah has Treacher Collins Syndrome. It impacts the formation of her eyes, which slant down towards her cheekbones and ears. Her lower jaw is small, giving her face an unusual shape. She comes into your bank and seems a little lost. Which of the following questions or comments would be appropriate?
- Can I help you with anything?
- Are you here with someone?
- Can you see OK? Can I find something for you?
- You seem lost. Can I point you in the direction of the exit?
Answer: Option 1.
Elizabeth has a prosthetic eye and arthritis because of trauma following a car accident. She also has some problems with depth perception and dexterity. Elizabeth pays for an item using her debit card, which you then place on the counter. She picks up the item then asks you to hand her the debit card. How would you react?
- Pick it up but feel annoyed that she can’t be bothered to do it herself.
- Hand the card back and wish Elizabeth a good day.
- Hand the card back and say, “Here you go” in a loud, slow voice.
- Pick it up, assume there’s something wrong with her and feel sorry for her.
Answer: Option 2.