Treat customers as if they are deaf: How to solve the impact of PPE on communications

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

The challenge for business owners in the midst of a pandemic is making people feel comfortable when visiting establishments and making their business look warm, open, and ready for serve customers while still abiding by all the regulations required to keep everyone safe and sound. First and foremost, the primary line of defense would be wearing a face mask. The next would be making transactions as contactless as possible, and this could be done with the use of machines or equipment. Nowadays, people have to communicate with a mask and a face shield on, so there’s always a struggle trying to understand what the other person is saying, and this adds some degree of frustration and stress. So, why not assume that customers are deaf? If a member of staff is wearing a mask as well, as they are in restaurants and in other establishments, then it’s not possible to read lips. The normal channels of communication are now literally blocked due to all of the personal protective equipment people are wearing, and so it would be helpful if there were automated voices or flashing lights or any signage to guide customers or give instructions, because in the absence of audio clues and traditional cues, businesses have got to be creative in how they communicate and engage with their customers. 

It would also be wise to take into consideration the people that wear both glasses and a face mask, as there are sometimes situations where they have to remove their glasses and/or face mask and they can’t see. For the older generation or those who can’t see well, maybe businesses could consider making their signage or the font size on menus and flyers bigger. Hopefully, it can be made more appropriate for those people that might need to take their glasses off or who need to leave their glasses on because they’ve got a mask on but they’ve got steamed up vision.

Photo from All About Vision

The view is that the mask must be worn at all times in public, unless one is eating or drinking. In a place like the cinema, almost everyone is eating or drinking throughout the movie, so their masks are off. Sometimes, there are even people who choose not to wear face masks in public. There are people who abide by the regulations and some people who do not, so what can be done about that? Within organisations, the leaders should be clear about what those regulations are and how they’re going to be deployed. In some shops, staff are not wearing masks and the patrons do. In other places, it’s the other way around. In an ideal environment, both the staff and the patrons are wearing masks. This then leads to the idea of a mask-free zone where people that would like to take their masks off can do so and make that conscious decision, a space where they are not under too much pressure, because certainly, it can be quite stressful trying to abide by all the guidelines and at the same time trying to understand and hear what people are saying.

The COVID mindset

These days, what’s seen on the streets and online is a survival mode in the messaging. EASTWEST PR defines having a COVID “lens” as being Compassionate, Optimistic, Values-based, Informative, and Digital, and applying this in company practices would make communication between the different channels clear. This mindset is about being optimistic. It’s about showing inspiration. It’s about showing leadership. It’s about reassuring people that when they go out, there will be a pleasant experience, not one that they’re just going to endure, but one that they’re going to enjoy. This then will become the secret to returning to some degree of normality.

When customers visit shops, business owners should strive to make the environments more relaxed while still safe. Using signage could be one good way to reassure people that the best possible measures are in place or to inform the public of general community-based updates, and these could be done in-store, in facilities, or on the company website. As business owners, there is a duty of care to the audiences being served, which are the staff, partners, and customers. Rather than just doing the minimum, be proactive. And when it comes to the staff, being proactive could be a good practice for them to know that they will get through it together.

People must take control of the present in order to create a future that the younger generations will be proud of, that they look back at this time not with horror but with pride and joy, and that they see the older generation as examples for whatever they’re going to be enduring in their own lifetime. Think about communicating with those people that may not be able to hear is being said, may not be able to read what was written, may not be able to speak and articulate to you in the way that they normally can, and make them feel reassured. People like to work with other people, and they like to feel confident and calm, because this eventually leads to building a partnership based on trust. That’s the role as communicators and as leaders.


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from The Conversation

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