2.3 Marketing Considerations

The BT Approach

Brian Perrett


It was once the case that many companies, particularly those whose products are marketed across the full spectrum of the population, considered disabled customers as a niche market at best, and an unwanted intrusion at worst.

This is no longer true!

More and more, companies are taking the view that, when properly managed, programmes which address the needs of disabled people can open up new market opportunities and be profit generators rather than cost enhancers. Moreover, they recognize that employment of disabled people provides them with talented employees who, of themselves, can enhance the profitability of the business. Equally important, these more enlightened companies are reaping the real marketing benefit to their core business from being seen to be balancing human need against the commercial imperative.


BT has a history of involvement with meeting the needs of disabled people stretching back over 80 years, with the adaptation of switchboards for use by disabled servicemen returning from the First World War. Today, it spends upwards of 15 million each year and employs 50 people on an Age and Disability programme which provides practical, day to day help to people with special needs.

Big numbers. But let's put them into context.

BT's annual income from the residential sector in the UK is around 5.4 billion. This revenue is generated from 20 million households. The charity Age Concern has published information that indicates that there are 6 million households in the UK where at least one of the residents is over 65 years old or has a disability, or perhaps both. Pro rata, then, that market is worth around 1.6 billion to BT. By anybody's standards that's a big market and one worthy of considerable marketing investment. Admittedly, not all of that 1.6 billion comes from the sale of special products and services. Most of it will be line rental and call revenue. But the fact is that providing user friendly products and services to households who have people with special needs helps generate increased customer loyalty. These customers, their families and carers, have disposable income and they have the choice of supplier. We ignore them at our peril.


BT's Age and Disability programme is led by a headquarters unit responsible for formulating the policy and general direction of the company's activities in this area. Its mission is simple but effective - to champion elderly and disabled customers. The prime driver in this is consultation - with disabled customers, their carers and their representative organizations - and turning that consultation into action. The headquarters unit is backed up by a 45 man strong field operation tasked with delivering high quality service direct to our customers and with implementing all aspects of the programme at a local level. Their role is one of direct interaction with the customer and, as such, they are an important part of the company's marketing resource.

Marketing Approach

Clearly, our disabled customers have been the recipients of, and have benefited from, much of our mainstream marketing activity. Initiatives on price, product and service development, customer commitment and care are, after all, relevant to all customers. But in the development of these initiatives the role of the Age and Disability unit has been twofold. First, to ensure that the interests of people with special needs have been considered. Second, to communicate the consequences of our actions to our target audience.

Our approach to new product development is the classic one, whether responding to need pull or technology push. Qualitative research to test reaction to the concept is followed by quantitative research to scope market potential, prototype building and testing, alpha and beta trials, product or service build and subsequent marketing. This may sound simple, but it's not. For example, market research in the disabled sector is fraught with problems, not the least of which is recruiting a large enough sample of people in any one location. Then there's the problem of communication - few research agencies have staff trained in the use of sign language, or more than even a basic appreciation of how, or how not, to talk to disabled people. These and similar problems spill over into other aspects of the development process, too.


Many people express the view that products and services for disabled people should be provided at low cost or, better still, free. While accepting that there is often a link between disability and financial means, application of such a policy could be interpreted as discrimination against other groups of customers. Indeed, many disabled people themselves argue against it, on the grounds that their aim is equality - in this instance, of access to the telecommunications network at a fair and affordable price. Better, then, that the requirements of disabled people are considered at the early stages of any product or service development, when inclusion of special features often results in minimal or no additional cost. Another approach, successfully adopted by BT in the development of the Converse 200 and 300 telephones - which incorporate many features to facilitate hearing, sight and dexterity impairment - is to compromise slightly on product design so that, while it retains the functionality required by disabled people, its design appeals to a wider audience. In this way, volume sales result in lower unit prices while recouping development and tooling costs. Additionally, the fact that they are then using a telephone marketed to the population as a whole can often enhance a disabled person's perception of being integrated into the community.

(Figure 2-9) Converse 300 telephone. Features for disabled people include inductive coupler; speech amplification; additional earpiece/headset; loudspeaker; large, well-spaced, colour contrasted buttons.

Historically, the main thrust of BT's Age and Disability marketing activity has constituted a generic com-munications programme, the keyword of which is involvement. Nationally, our team often undertake visits to customers' homes to discuss and determine their precise requirements. They also have formal programmes of talks and presentations to caring organizations and disability groups like deaf clubs etc. As well as that, they attend local exhibitions and often lend equipment to specialist groups. One or two areas also have Community Engineer programmes, where nominated telecommunications technicians, who have a special empathy with older and disabled, can visit their homes to carry out installation and repair. This means that we get the customer's requirements right first time, which helps save time and money.

At a Corporate level, the principal activity has centred on our flagship publication The BT Guide for people who are disabled or elderly. This publication contains information on over 100 ways to make telecommunica-tions easier to use. It's an annual publication that is advertised widely in the national and disability press and which has established itself as a prime information source for disabled people and their carers alike. This is backed up by a full communications programme of press and exhibition activity.

In the High Street, BT's marketing activity is centred on its own retail outlets. Around 90% of these have one or more employees specially trained to provide additional expertise on disability matters, should it be required, to colleagues who may be dealing with disabled people. Many of these employees have voluntarily undertaken training in basic sign language.

We also argue that people have a right to information in a format suitable to their individual needs. To this end, BT makes available a range of its publications, including user guides and customer information, in Braille, large print and audio tape.

Activity undertaken in conjunction with other organizations can result in valuable spin off. The best example is Typetalk, the UK national telephone relay service, which is funded by BT and run by The Royal National Institute For Deaf People. Typetalk has represented a quantum leap in the quality of life for deaf people and BT is very proud of the partnership with the RNID that has resulted in this service. The second phase of Typetalk began in March 1995 with the opening of a new building that will more than double capacity. At the same time, the world's first national service enabling text access to the emergency services will be launched.

Civil Rights

There is a growing movement in the UK to improve the rights of disabled people. BT is committed to supporting these moves - both as an employer and service provider. The Age and Disability unit has been working with organizations representing disabled people to seek their views and help co-ordinate the company's response to a recent Government consultation document on anti-discrimination proposals. Disabled organizations have been quick to point out that BT's specialist products and services are of key importance to disabled people. For its part, BT wants to be certain that interested parties have the chance to air their views on the future of telecommu-nications services. It speaks volumes for BT's approach to this market that a spokesman for the Royal National Institute For Deaf People has said that "BT was the only commercial organization to approach us for our views".

Plans made in America for complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act have shown that additional costs need not be overly high. Disability groups there who have been consulted by businesses realize the financial implications they face and are prepared to take a more pragmatic approach in making their demands. Our activity in this area over the last 80 years helps confirm our claim that we are happy to support meaningful and precise legislation and would look for close involvement with legislators, consumers and interest groups in helping to determine this balance.


BRITISH TELECOMMUNICATIONS plc, (1995). The BT Guide for people who are disabled or elderly.