Sign language app transforms support for deaf customers
By Kieran Hadfield - 15 September 2020
A mobile app is transforming how Thames Water supports its deaf customers, offering quicker access to home appointments and improved communication options.
Thames Water has worked with its language translation service, LanguageLine, and deaf groups to pilot and introduce the British Sign Language (BSL) app into its support services for customers.
LanguageLine’s BSL app gives Thames Water’s customer representatives live face-to face-access to a BSL interpreter using a handheld device or a laptop. The app is activated during visits to deaf customers' homes and for online appointments to enable more inclusive and accessible communications.
Thames Water customers benefit by having immediate access to an interpreter rather than waiting two weeks for a home appointment. Customers who are deaf also do not have to rely on friends and family to sort bills, organise and attend water quality tests or investigations for a blocked drain or leaking pipe.
Thames Water customer representative Rob Hanks, who has used the app during an online appointment about bills said: “The app helped make the experience a lot easier for the customer and we managed to talk through charges, bills and usage information much quicker than I had anticipated.
“You know something is a huge step forward when a customer uses phrases such as ‘brilliant’ and ‘a lot easier’. This is a really valuable tool for when we come into contact with a deaf customer during an operational incident or at an appointment.”
The BSL app was tested by the company’s customer representative team during home visits with deaf customers and through two focus group sessions with deafPLUS, a charity which provides advice, employment support and training to deaf and deafened people, and Total Communications Community, a Reading-based organisation, which provides services to people with specific and complex communication needs.
Aiysha Begum, deafPLUS team leader said: "This initiative from Thames Water is a breakthrough in terms of companies communicating with their customers. The system provides totally inclusive access and deaf customers are treated on a completely equal basis as hearing customers. I very much hope that other companies will follow Thames Water's lead and start providing such fantastic systems like this too.”
Sabrina Hill, Thames Water’s vulnerability lead, added: “We’re always looking for ways to improve our services for customers. The use of our BSL app and text relay means we can communicate with deaf customers in the way they want to and ensures we can be as inclusive and accessible as possible while doing our best to help customers.”
The company is now exploring options to extend the BSL app’s use to other customer service staff and engineers.
Thames Water has 83,000 customers on its Priority Services Register and plans to increase it to 410,000 by 2025. The company currently has 900 customers on its register who are deaf and is urging eligible customers to sign-up for extra support.
Customers who are deaf or hard of hearing qualify to join Thames Water’s free Priority Services Register – a secure database of customers who would struggle to get by should their home’s water supply be disrupted.
In such circumstances, priority service customers are contacted by Thames Water’s care team for bottled water deliveries directly to their homes if they are unable to get to a collection hub. The register also provides tailored communication services and lets priority services customers know when maintenance works which might affect them will be happening in their area.
Customers can find out if they qualify for the Priority Services Register and sign up by visiting https://www.thameswater.co.uk/help/extra-care/priority-services or calling 0800 009 3652.
More information about deafPlus can be viewed here: https://www.deafplus.org/