Quintessential communication: How to interact effectively with hearing-impaired clients and prospects

By Geoff Kirbyson | May 21, 2004 | Last updated on May 21, 2004
4 min read

(May 2004) Imagine discussing your retirement plans with your advisor in the middle of an airport runway, in the arena hosting Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals or in front of the speakers at a rock concert.

The noise would be literally deafening, but once you removed yourself from that venue, you could conduct a normal conversation. That’s not the case for a growing number of Canadians who deal with hearing loss and deafness every day.

More than a few affected

According to The Hearing Foundation of Canada, hearing loss is the third most common chronic disability in Canada, affecting one in 10 Canadians, one in five baby boomers and nearly two-thirds of seniors over age 65.

If those statistics aren’t enough to make advisors stand up and take notice, consider that disabled Canadians, including those with hearing loss, have the potential spending power of $25 billion.

First steps

Dealing with hearing-impaired clients or prospects can be a delicate process, according to Gael Hannan, a Toronto-based hearing loss consultant. However, with the proper appreciation of what’s involved with such a disability and some practical tips, advisors can communicate just as effectively with clients with hearing loss as they do with clients without any disability at all.

A crucial first step is determining whether a client or prospect indeed suffers from hearing loss. Some will be upfront about it, Hannan says, but others may have a personal issue with it and haven’t admitted to it yet.

Asking you to repeat yourself numerous times, cocking one ear towards you or a conversation that simply doesn’t flow as well as it should are often some telltale signs of hearing impairment, she notes.

“If you suspect someone is hard of hearing, asking, ‘Are you hard of hearing?’ is probably the worst thing you can say,” advises Hannan. “If they haven’t told you by now, they have an issue with it. The best thing to do is to try to create a better listening environment.”

Noise reduction

Creating the right ambiance begins with avoiding meetings in open areas, which can be difficult settings for people with hearing loss because of annoying background noise. Where possible, arrange to meet in a private office and shut the door, recommends Hannan.

“Any type of noise other than your voice will interfere with their understanding — you should create as quiet an environment as possible when discussing something as important and personal as finances,” she says.

Light and sight

A well-lit environment is just as important as one free from ambient noise. Hannan points out that while most offices have proper lighting, problems can occur when sun streams in through the window from behind the advisor. “That puts the advisor’s face in a shadow or partly in a shadow,” she explains. “You should shift over a little so the light is more on your face and you’re not back-lit.”

Once the meeting has begun, Hannan stresses the number one rule is to maintain eye contact. It sounds simple but many people have trouble with it, she adds. “People who are deaf or hard of hearing need to see your face, not just the lips,” says Hannan. “They get so many cues from a person’s eyes and body language. You don’t need to speak slowly, you just have to speak clearly face-to-face.”

Show and tell

To expand on the eye contact, she recommends using text cues, such as on a computer, as often as possible, particularly when discussing numbers. “Numbers are difficult for a person with hearing loss, they sound the same and they run together quickly,” says Hannan. “[Hearing-impaired] people can have trouble differentiating between large numbers in part because many people say numbers quickly.”

Tech support

Another factor to consider is that while the telephone is often an advisor’s constant companion, it isn’t always the friendliest of contraptions for people with hearing loss. Instead, many of them use teletype machines called TTYs. Thanks to technology, computers can be configured to communicate with TTYs.

Another option is the use of relay technology, a little-known but free and confidential service offered by telephone companies. The operator can receive a typed message from a hearing-impaired or deaf person and then immediately voice it to the advisor and then do the opposite when the advisor replies.

Hannan says technology is currently being developed that would encrypt e-mails to positively identify hearing-impaired people so they could place buy and sell orders via e-mail in the future.

Interpreting needs

For clients who are signing deaf and don’t use speech, Hannan says text communication is very important. It’s often preferred to have someone who can interpret on their behalf, such as a family member or friend, in the room for short conversations. For longer meetings where important information is being discussed, she recommends having a trained interpreter present.

“Advisors aren’t expected to pay for interpreting services but it would be nice if they did,” she adds.

Written wrap-up

Finally, after meeting with a hearing-impaired client, Hannan recommends following up with a written summary.

“No matter how well they’ve been connecting, [the hearing-impaired client] will often find there were points they didn’t understand as clearly as they originally thought they did,” she says.

• • •

For more information on hearing loss, visit The Hearing Foundation of Canada’s Web site by clicking here.

• • •

Geoff Kirbyson is a financial services writer based in Winnipeg.


Geoff Kirbyson