Investing in Digital Accessibility

By Spiro Papathanasakis

Financial institutions have been ignoring a large demographic for years. This group—customers with disabilities and their families—collectively controls $175 billion in discretionary spending in the U.S. alone.

In last year’s World Retail Banking Report, Capgemini and Efma noted that consumers are relying more heavily than ever on financial technology. And banks must respond urgently to this shift if they are to remain competitive.

Financial institutions that embrace technology and a digital way of doing business are seeing a generous return on their investment. Web-based self-service is vastly less expensive than assisted transactions by phone or in a branch. According to Forrester Research, it costs at least $6 to $12 per phone call for customer support at a call center but less than 10 cents when customers perform the transaction themselves.

People with disabilities often embrace the option of conducting financial transactions from their own home or smartphone, rather than taking the time and effort required to visit a branch in person. In general, these customers report that their financial needs are less likely to be fully served by the banking system. So while moving to digital is cost-efficient, efficiency should not preclude developing quality online and mobile services that are accessible to everyone.

To maximize their investment, banks must stay focused on digital accessibility.

Digital banking offers incredible convenience for people who cannot travel to a bank, access/use an ATM, or bank via telephone. A recent report from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation pointed out that while mobile financial services are being marketed as convenient “anytime, anyplace” tools—and have great potential for customers with disabilities—they’re missing the mark if the technologies themselves are not accessible and usable by people with disabilities.

A classic example: If someone is legally blind, they may not be able to conduct a transaction if the color contrast on the screen is poor. If this customer uses a screen reader, they won’t be able to understand the contents of an image unless there is a text alternative. Videos on banking products and services are of no value to a customer who is deaf if they aren’t captioned. Without assistive technology that helps them type, use a mouse, or their phone, people with physical disabilities cannot access and use online personal banking options.

Financial websites are a critical piece in consumers’ monetary decisions.

And financial institutions have a tremendous opportunity to delight customers who have disabilities. To put things into perspective, more than eight in ten people with disabilities have chosen not to give their business to a service provider because of barriers such as poor web accessibility. When customers have a frustrating experience with an organization’s website, this is one of the factors compelling them to abandon a brand.

Let’s talk about a few strategies that will help you attract and connect with this sizeable market.

1.  Look to the gold standard for digital accessibility.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are the internationally accepted technical requirements included in many global standards and regulations for web accessibility. WCAG 2.0 consists of 12 guidelines that include testable success criteria. When followed, these guidelines provide accessibility to the broadest demographic of people with disabilities.

When a website is built to meet WCAG 2.0, the reality is that it allows people with disabilities, who use assistive technology like screen readers, to seamlessly navigate the site. When these customers aren’t frustrated by their digital experience, it’s easier for them to do business with you.

On the website of SBD Bank in Connecticut, all of the WCAG standards have been implemented, the site itself has been tested for accessibility, and a statement is posted that draws customers’ attention to these efforts.

In addition to enhancing the customer experience for people with disabilities, conforming to the requisite standards and regulations will mitigate the risk of a lawsuit. Again and again, the Department of Justice has made it clear that websites and mobile apps must be accessible under the ADA. As the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division said in a press release, “Individuals who have disabilities must not be denied equal access to the services offered by financial institutions because of their disability.”

2.  Market directly to customers with disabilities.

The truth of the matter is that only 5% of the largest North American companies are making measurable efforts to connect with consumers with disabilities. The companies that do make these efforts are outperforming their competitors in long-term stock prices.

It should be easy for someone with a disability to find information online that’s relevant to them. You likely have products and services that would appeal specifically to these individuals or their families, such as ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) accounts—the tax-advantaged savings accounts for people with disabilities.

Consider what some other financial service providers are offering:

  • SunTrust offers the Assistive Technology Loan Program, which gives low-interest loans to people with disabilities to enable them to buy assistive devices.
  • Wells Fargo provides seamless technology-based services to customers with disabilities, including accessible websites, accessible mobile apps, talking ATMs, and audio formats of printed materials. It also promotes all of these digital services to the customers who can use them.
  • MasterCard has a dedicated page which speaks directly to consumers with disabilities.

3. Create advertising that’s inclusive of people with disabilities.

People with disabilities want to participate fully in the brand experience—and are loyal to organizations that include them.

Make sure you’re approaching it with the right frame of mind. People with disabilities shouldn’t be portrayed as a special-interest group (“them”) but rather as part of your core customer base (“us”). Have a look at this SunTrust commercial that shows a montage of diverse customers. These include a brief clip of someone with a disability—not sitting passively in his wheelchair, it’s worth noting, but actively spinning it around. A wheelchair user is featured prominently in this Liberty Mutual ad encouraging people to get out and vote, and yet (unlike so many ads) her disability is not the main focus of the story.

4. Don’t forget that in-branch marketing to customers with disabilities can also be effective.

Wells Fargo’s senior vice president of Disability Market Segment & Strategy, Kathy Martinez—who has extensive professional and personal disability experience—purchased thousands of licenses for customized JAWS screen-reading software to be implemented at public kiosks in retail locations. This allows customers who are blind to access products and services just like anyone else when they enter their local branch.

Including and welcoming customers with disabilities is a cost-effective marketing strategy for any financial institution.

It allows you to serve a huge target group with significant assets. When you provide accessible online service, you save on the costs of assisting customers with disabilities by phone or in person. You lower your risk of expensive settlements for violating anti-discrimination legislation. You’re viewed positively as a responsible corporate citizen and gained customer loyalty. This also results in influencer outreach by people who are thrilled with your brand. There are many gains, for what we consider to be a quite minimal investment.

Spiro Papathanasakis is a founder and director of eSSENTIAL Accessibility, the provider of an innovative and comprehensive digital accessibility solution that enhances the customer experience for people with disabilities. Email: [email protected]. Twitter.