WelcoMe: the app making customer service inclusive

Gavin Neate’s WelcoMe app is set to transform the way in which customer-facing businesses serve disabled people. He explains how the business is led by a commitment to empowerment and equality.

The WelcoMe app

The premise is simple but revolutionary: the user opens the app, selects the business or organisation they want to visit and enters the time when they will arrive. The business instantly receives notification of the intended visit, along with information about the user’s specific needs and more general information about their disability. When the user arrives at the premises, staff are notified so that they can greet them and give them whatever assistance they need.

The app is currently available in the UK and Ireland, and is poised to launch internationally – a step made easier by its recent recognition as the Global Champion for Inclusion & Empowerment at the World Summit Awards (WSAs), which identify companies providing digital solutions that address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“This recognition is like a door into another room: it says we’re a company that has got through the looking glass, and is doing something internationally,” Neate says. “The Sustainable Development Goals are wide reaching and, as a world, we have to have achieved them by 2030 if we’re going to be sustainable. The goals are about how we remove some of the greatest barriers to the world’s evolution.”

For Neate, it was important that users would not have to pay for the app; it makes its money from the fees paid by participating businesses and organisations. However, he did not want it to be a charity. Instead, it’s designed to be a working example of social capitalism.

“The word ‘disability’ in the UK and in the western world is connected to charity,” he says. “Nobody associates it with high income, or high growth. But we’re trying to change that. I want to prove it’s possible to have a socially good company that is sustainable.”

Revolutionising staff training

Neate is determined to transform the way in which disability is perceived, putting the power firmly in the hands of disabled people.

“Charity, by definition, is the provision of service and financial support to those in need,” he says. “Disabled people aren’t ‘needy’; they’re in need of the breaking down of barriers. There are so many other people out there who are disabled who are leaders in their fields.

“Beyond anything else in my life, I believe in equality. I saw society looking at disabled people as disabled first and human second. This company empowers the disabled person to dictate the level of service they get. When you are given information by a disabled person, and that information is useful to you, it changes the relationship.”

The ‘purple pound’ – the collective spending power of disabled people – is estimated to be worth £249bn to the UK economy. Making it easier for people with disabilities to visit places such as shops, cinemas and theatres makes solid business sense – yet at present, many destinations get it wrong. A 2015 survey by the Extra Costs Commission found that 75% of disabled people and their families had left a shop due to poor customer service – meaning that UK businesses could be missing out on sales worth £420m a week.

It’s clear that traditional efforts to train staff how to serve disabled people are not always working. Neate believes this is because that training is delivered (often at great expense) once every few years and then gets forgotten, or staff move on to other jobs. With WelcoMe, every staff member has instant access to the training they need – not only for a specific disability, but for each specific individual.

Keeping up with the pace of change

It’s not Neate’s first work in this field. Originally a Royal Air Force police officer, he left the RAF and started volunteering at a guide dog school in 1996. He went on to train as a Guide Dogs mobility instructor, a role he continued in for 18 years, during which time he invented the world’s first smartphone-operated pedestrian crossing system. The demands of developing this system, and building a solutions-led business around it, forced him to reluctantly leave the Guide Dogs, but also led to the creation of WelcoMe.

Disabled people aren’t ‘needy’; they’re in need of the breaking down of barriers. There are so many other people out there who are disabled who are leaders in their fields

Gavin Neate
Creator of WelcoMe

Since its launch, the app has been downloaded thousands of times and has been adopted by a broad range of businesses, from shopping centres to banks. When Covid-19 hit in 2020, Neate and his team had to shift their focus away from the entertainment, tourism and leisure sectors, towards essential retail and businesses centred on areas such as health.

“It’s easy to change direction because we’re everywhere there is somebody meeting somebody else,” he says.

He is aware that, for many of WelcoMe’s users, the pandemic has been more challenging.

“There are people who are shielding and who, even though they’ve had their second jab, are still not prepared to go outside,” he says. “There are people who are autistic, who don’t understand the queuing system. There are people with cerebral palsy, for whom standing in a queue is physically painful. There are people who can’t get the same customer support because there are not enough members of staff to support them when they go into a shop.”

He adds that, even as shops open up again, there are new challenges. Disabled people often like to shop in places where they’re known, but many may now find familiar staff members to have left, or be working different hours, so it’s more important than ever for businesses to make them feel welcome and comfortable.

Helping businesses to do better

Neate took part in the bank’s Entrepreneur Accelerator programme throughout 2020, and says it was an incredibly useful forum through which to share experiences with other business founders at a time when teams were forced to be apart. “We were able to connect with other entrepreneurs who were living through the same challenging times,” he says. “Trialling WelcoMe with the bank last year also gave us a great opportunity to improve the service and develop new features which we will be launching shortly.”

Stuart Dearden, the bank’s regional ecosystem manager, adds: “It has been a pleasure supporting Gavin to further develop WelcoMe through the bank Accelerator programme. WelcoMe is a fantastic example of how a purpose-driven solution is helping to revolutionise perceptions and opportunities for disabled people. As Gavin highlights, breaking down barriers is not just the right thing to do; it also creates value across society, benefiting all.”

WelcoMe goes a long way towards combating the awkwardness people can feel when they don’t know how to interact with disabled people. For businesses keen to make improvements, Neate recommends finding opportunities to talk with disabled people about their experiences, while keeping in mind that one disabled person will not be able to speak for everyone with a disability. Employing disabled people is another powerful way to break down barriers.

“Invest in your staff’s enjoyment in what they do, and you’ll improve their joy in serving,” he says. “There’s nothing better than giving good customer service.”


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