Money & Motoring24th July 2014

Principality Building Society Leading the way on Deaf Friendly Banking

The banking sector is behind the game on deaf awareness, now one Building Society is seeking to make sweeping improvements.

by Sarah Lawrence

One of the greatest challenges throughout my deaf life has been using the banking system. By and large, I have experienced a lack of deaf awareness all the way from opening a current account to applying for a mortgage and most definitely in understanding the terms and conditions that come as standard with every different banking product. The Principality Building Society has embarked on a deaf friendly programme that will change all that. They will better understand what Deaf and Hard of Hearing customers need, and most importantly, will be able to respond to those needs changing the banking landscape for me.

I have run my own deaf awareness consultancy business for 20 years and I remember some years ago having difficulty with my own Lloyds Bank current account. Following a quite disastrous experience when my communication needs as a Deaf BSL were lost on the people dealing with me, I approached management within Lloyds and enquired as to whether some deaf awareness training would be good for customer relations, especially as about 12% of the UK population were either Deaf or Hard of Hearing (now closer to 17% and rising).

"No thanks," came the emphatic reply, "We have policies and procedures in place to deal with deaf customers. If you need an interpreter we have a policy that staff will follow to arrange one for you."

Thinking I had obviously been unlucky in the previous experience I marched confidently into my branch to request to speak to someone about an account query. Indicating I was Deaf and would like to arrange a meeting through an interpreter to aid two way communication, I was told they don't arrange interpreters. I asked to speak to the manager and explained I had been assured that a policy was in place. Looking mystified, the manager told me he was unaware any such policy existed, and as he could understand me, perhaps we could just proceed. Ah, it doesn't matter if I can't understand you then!

I left the bank intent on finding an alternative place to do my banking business. Sadly, Lloyds were not alone, and whilst I opened a Barclays account, it was not through some great deaf aware offering, it was through a determination not to give Lloyds any more of my business.

Sadly, no-one in the banking sector has jumped up to shout out about the introduction of deaf friendly services since and so, annoyingly, I still have that Lloyds account due to a lack of alternative - out of the frying pan and into the fire and all that! That is until now. Barclays have started to consider the wider scope to accessibility through the provision of real time access to on-line BSL/English interpretation. That is progress, no doubt about it, but like many of my Deaf friends and associates, I am uncomfortable about talking about such personal matters through an interpreter I do not know and have never met. It's an advance, huge credit for that, but for me it is not the answer. Ideally, I want to enjoy one to one, face to face customer service, when I can explore things like my understanding of terms and conditions, account options, ask for financial advice - accessing the service all other customers do.

Having received a second rate banking service for far too many years, I was delighted to make contact with Wales' largest Building society recently, the Principality, to find willing and enthusiastic leadership on this issue of deaf awareness, and to get the go ahead to deliver a programme that will mark the Principality out as market leaders in the banking sector. Only a matter of weeks into the programme some of the estimated 560,000 Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in Wales as well as those living elsewhere in the UK, can already talk about their money needs to Principality staff who have learned some bank specific sign language as well as how to deal with Hard of Hearing or Deafened customers according to their specific communication needs.

Following my initial contact to discuss deaf friendly service provision, Principality management looked to identify staff members who wanted to become more deaf aware. With a strong customer service ethos, they were not left short of volunteers, so the first programme had to be limited to eight of their staff from across Wales. When I first walked through the door of the Principality to discuss my deaf awareness programme, I felt I was dealing with a senior manager who 'got it'. Mark had gone on-line to learn some basic signs to greet me and welcome me into his office. He had learned American signs as he had not realised that different countries have their own sign language but it showed a great attitude, and he has not disappointed since.

At the second meeting I met James, community lead for the Principality, who arranges support from the Building Society for some wonderful community projects. If I needed to see genuine enthusiasm and a desire to bridge gaps between society and the deaf community, James offered me all of the reassurance I needed and more. His enthusiasm is infectious and his delivery met with my expectations every time. Through my contact with Mark and James I could see that the Principality's social responsibility policy was live, active and dynamic, not just some dead and dormant sequence of words tagged on to the end of a website. They could see how deaf aware services fitted into their organisation's business ethos, but also how the business would benefit from being more accessible and skilled in dealing with people who have quite specific communication needs. Even in those early stages, I hoped and believed we would be able to pull something together that would truly make a difference to any deaf people who wanted to interact with the Principality.

The benefit of what I agreed with the Principality is that the programme is completely unique, built around them, their customers and their customer service ethos. Part planned but with a responsive attitude to each person' needs and learning preferences, the first course was scheduled to start during the last week of June.

When I first mentioned that I would be running the course without an interpreter, I remember Mark and James being quite surprised. Responding to their quizzical looks, I reassured them that I had done this many times before and that just taking part in the training would immediately require thinking on both sides about how to communicate effectively.

In my view too many businesses, even the likes of John Lewis in Cardiff, use hearing BSL users or interpreters to deliver deaf awareness training and BSL taster sessions for them. They miss out on really understanding Deaf culture and how Deaf people think, as well as the extent of the learning through effective immersion, but it is of course 'easier' for the delegates because they can talk their way through the sessions. I was proud that the Principality were showing great leadership on this issue, and were entrusting their learning to me, a Deaf teacher.

In preparation for the training I met with James, Sue and Gareth, both senior branch managers to identify all of the Principality specific language used by staff in dealing with their customers. This is a vital bit of preparation to ensure the programme was truly built specifically for them, but also to ensure I understood and could effectively translate banking language into true meaning for the BSL community.

Having volunteered to take part in the programme I asked Hayley to tell me why she had done so. "I volunteered because I think this is an important service to offer customers. My mother has always been able to use sign language and it is a topic that is very close to my heart as my niece has speech difficulties." Similarly, Gareth said, "Having worked in the Principality for many years and various branches I have always been disappointed that a Deaf customer does not get the same level of service as hearing customers. I have also in a previous job worked with 2 deaf people who used BSL and felt disappointed that I could not communicate with them in that way."

Pleased with the planning session, I arrived for day one of the training. Nine members of staff, four I had met previously and who I knew were enthusiastic about doing the training. There was an air of nervousness and expectation - I liked that. Within minutes we were into it, combining deaf awareness with BSL tuition from the outset. I had someone there supporting me, but it was not an interpreter, just someone to note down every BSL word/phrase that we covered, and someone who could help me explain Deaf BSL culture and cultural issues around deafness more broadly.  I was amazed that at the end of the first full day we had covered more than 200 words and phrases. I was exhausted, and the delegates were pretty tired too, but they had given me everything, even laughing at my jokes! Sitting down immediately afterwards with a glass of rose wine to do a hot de-briefing on the session and start planning the next round, I felt proud of the extent of the learning. The Principality staff had been energetic and attentive throughout, keen to learn BSL and keen to understand deaf culture, a vital ingredient in becoming deaf aware. Having taught BSL and deaf awareness for more than 20 years now, quite frankly I was blown away by the day. This group had gone far further and faster than I could have hoped for, showing the benefits of training through immersion with people who really wanted to be there.

The next 2 sessions followed a week apart, the second session adding further banking content and the third session bringing the language together into far more detailed BSL discussions with me as a customer. At the end of the three sessions each member of staff could hold a BSL discussion with me of at least 2 minutes, with one of the ladies on the course able to chat to me about my hobbies and every day issues for over 5 minutes. It really was impressive after just 24 hours of tuition.

Commenting on the Principality's decision to run this course and on what they had learned Sue said, "I feel very proud that the Principality is leading its competitors in looking at ways to better communicate with all our customers. The course was excellent, Sarah did a great job, it was very fast paced and tiring on times, but loads of fun and my learning far surpassed my expectations."

Whilst learning BSL in itself is a good life skill, businesses like the Principality will also be looking for a return on their investment in providing their staff with the opportunity to learn. As Gareth commented, "I think there are so many business benefits from letting people know we are able to converse in BSL. The main benefits being us proving we are a market leader in customer experience, by this I mean that as a society we want to be able to help everyone and this means that a person can come to a branch and converse with staff in a multitude of languages - something others have yet to do."

This is just the start of a programme that will help the Principality take the banking industry by storm in the UK in respect of providing a deaf aware service. Through the medium of deaf awareness, the training participants are much more aware of the issues that people face who do not readily know or understand banking language, or who need special consideration of a customer's communication needs.

The training was exhausting for all concerned, but I am already confident that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people entering the branches where the learners are based will already be treated with greater understanding of their needs. If the customers use BSL they will be able to have a discussion, although a little patience will probably be beneficial. Half way through the course, Senior Branch Manager Sue, who is based in Bridgend, was able to tell us about a Deaf customer coming into her branch and being genuinely delighted that staff could greet her in her first language.

Interestingly, this short immersion course also served as an excellent team building exercise with the group coming together strongly. A bit of joint suffering goes a long way I think! At the end of the course when each learner had to have a BSL discussion with me in a banking environment, their colleagues were on the edge of their seats willing them to do well and genuinely delighted for them when they did so. There were also those odd moments of inter branch rivalry in respect of the pace of learning, but that helped to keep the pace high throughout the course.

When considering the wider benefits of this programme, Senior Branch Manager Sue told me, "Understanding that all customers are different and that treating people fairly does not mean treating them the same, is at the heart of excellent customer service.  Appreciating and celebrating our differences can only lead to forming better relationships with our customers and our community."

Senior Branch Manager Gareth was equally upbeat about the benefits, "This will make a deaf customer's experience 1000 times better. It will highlight just how much we care about their needs and in turn enable them to have a ‘safe haven’ when they know they will be treated with respect and their needs met. It will also inspire others to join a ‘Caring' Society'."

This group of Principality staff were united in their desire to learn more BSL, despite this being one of the fastest paced courses I have ever been involved in. Commenting on the course, this was some of the feedback:

"I am truly blown away by the course. Never did I imagine it would be so enjoyable, hard and that we would progress so far in the space of 3 days. Sarah is an amazing teacher who grabs and keeps your attention with such ease, whilst making you feel at ease." - Gareth

"The course was very fast paced but because it was so interesting and fun and everyone got involved it was something I wanted to do. You were a great teacher, and what you taught us in 3 days well surpassed the basic knowledge I was expecting to learn." - Hayley

At this stage, these are small introductory steps, but this programme plays to the Principality's 'community minded' strengths and their ambitions are to take this programme further. I am looking forward to having coffee mornings with the team who took part in this first session and to inviting local Deaf and Hard of Hearing people into branches around Wales to see whether the Principality's banking offer is now far more suitable for them than the services offered by their current provider. For me, it is, and will be getting better and better, so I will be transferring my personal banking to the Principality as soon as I can. They deserve my business because of the steps they are taking to understand me as a customer!

Interested in learning bespoke BSL or getting some deaf awareness training, please contact

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / Money & Motoring

24th July 2014