By Joan Leotta
When hearing customers call San Francisco based Mozzeria Pizzeria to place an order, they probably do not realize they are phoning a Deaf-owned, Deaf-staffed eatery. Melody Stein, Mozzeria’s owner, manages her restaurant by concentrating on the business at hand: the pizza. No stranger to the business, Stein explains, “my family runs restaurants and I have always wanted to open my own restaurant. Russ, my husband hails from New York City and he loves eating pizza. We compromised by serving Neapolitan pizza in wood burning oven.”
Overcoming communication challenges with hearing customers, however, required thinking out of the box. So, the enterprising restaurant owner used the same communication model of restaurants serving non-native speaking clientele: “When you visit Mexico, a non-English speaking country, how do you communicate with Mexicans? Point to the item on the menu. Gestures. We also offer paper and pen on each table. We use video relay communication and email to communicate with our customers. Technical aides (from Convo) help us get more customers (especially with phone reservations). And of course, video relay helps with phone-in orders. It makes for a practically seamless interface between the two worlds—Deaf/Hard of Hearing (D/HOH) and the hearing worlds.”
Mozzeria and Convo
Wayne Betts, Jr., Chief Strategic Officer and Co-Founder of Convo, insures that the Convo products work for Mozzeria’s successful interaction with its customers. In an interview with SMG, Betts shared additional insights into his company’s relationship with the Steins and the larger scope of his efforts to support D/HOH-owned businesses.
The partnership with Mozzeria has showcased Convo’s 21st century innovation and communication possibilities. According to Betts, “Owners Russ and Melody Stein made requests focused on enhancing their restaurant-operating experience. For instance, they kept missing their calls due to the ringing technology they had at the time, with a different provider, and it was distracting and irritating to their patrons. They eventually made the decision to remove the device and as a result, lost the ability to receive incoming call notifications. They wanted a type of visual ringing that would grab the employees’ attention and at the same time remain discreet to patrons. We developed a customized blueprint for their restaurant, strategically placing Convo Lights in specific spots. The solution has proven to be effective with Russ and Melody reporting that their percentage of missed calls has reduced from 50% to 5%.”
He adds, “Convo has supplied 560 various businesses and organizations in the U.S. with Convo Lights, the visual ringing system that Mozzeria uses in its restaurant. We also have a Community Directory which our callers can access via our Convo apps to find Deaf-owned businesses in the nation. Over 250 businesses are currently in that directory and many of these business owners are Convo users.”
Above and Beyond: Convo’s Commercial Applications
Providing commercial applications capable of maintaining seamless interaction between the Deaf and hearing worlds is not just a business objective. For Betts it is just as much an aspect of the company’s core value to “ensure that our products and features are sign language-centric and Deaf-centric”. Convo Announce is the first such product to deliver communication accessibility and increased safety for D/HOH people. Released in November 2015, Convo Announce enables schools and programs to have a dedicated platform capable of receiving simultaneous emergency and public announcements, both in text and in video, for people who are D/HOH. Prior to this innovation, there were no functionally equivalent emergency and public notification systems for the 420,000 D/HOH students in the United States.
Q & A with Wayne Betts, Jr.
In an interview with SMG, Betts gave further insight into the how’s and why’s of Convo’s success in creating a connection between the hearing and Deaf/HOH worlds.
SMG: How has Convo evolved since its founding in 2009? What features have enhanced the technology and the communication products you offer?
Betts: Since 2009, Convo has changed a lot. Today we are a bigger company with bigger challenges, and we are more ambitious. The first few years our priority was laying out the foundation, which meant growing our pool of interpreters and obtaining FCC certification, and proving ourselves as a competent—and the only—Deaf-owned video relay system (VRS) provider in the industry. After we fleshed out the engineering and marketing teams, which were (and still are) full of Deaf and signing employees, we asked ourselves: “What can we do together? How do we want to shape the world? ” From there, we developed our core values as a company, and created a movement that stemmed from our passion for the Deaf Ecosystem. Our Community Directory grew out of this. The Directory is a feature in our apps that allows users to connect with other local Deaf-owned businesses and Deaf-related organizations, schools and services.
In the future, we want to create new technology in untouched domains. We want to offer a different and better take on the old technology. The question we often ask ourselves is: “How can we change the world with our technology?”
SMG: What percentage of your staff are people from the Deaf community?
Betts: Nearly all of the staff is from the Deaf community. A lot of our interpreters have Deaf parents, and many of them have been heavily involved with the community over the years. Not counting the interpreters, most of us are Deaf ourselves and have been a part of the Deaf community our whole lives.
SMG: Does the fact that Convo is Deaf-owned and staffed contribute to the success of its products? If so, how?
Betts: Without a doubt! I’ve worked for companies in the past where the upper-level people weren’t customers of their own products. Their hearts may have been in the right place, but innovation comes from direct experiences. People who are not Deaf or HOH cannot fully understand what customers need and a lot of their ideas often originate from a business perspective. That approach rarely creates the best experience for the customers.
As a Deaf-owned company, our ideas come directly from real experience. In addition, the working environment in an all-Deaf employee company means that when teams meet, there is less explaining on why this idea works or why that idea doesn’t work because we are all coming from the same place. We have shared experiences, values, and language. We understand each other on an intuitive level. Less time spent on discussions means more time for exploring new ideas.
SMG: How does Convo recruit interpreters? Do they receive training from the company?
Betts: The approach we take in recruiting interpreters is different from the approach of other companies. Early on, we established clearly the traits we seek in our interpreters and we have a screening process that measures the level of an interpreter’s reception, voicing, and signing skills. This process is overseen by a panel of people of different backgrounds, qualifications, and roles in the community. Some other companies may review certifications and years of experience and hire only based on those criteria. We believe that the true measure of the quality of interpreters goes beyond what is on their resume, which is why we also put emphasis on the real experience of the calls that they experience. We often pair up the more experienced interpreters with newer interpreters for mentorship opportunities and professional growth. We also provide continuous in-house training.
SMG: How are you planning to grow the business and increase the number of interpreters?
Betts: Our guiding North Star is to always remain Deaf-owned and sign language-centric. We are less concerned about competition with other companies and more focused on doing the work we believe in. This approach is what sustains us as a business and sets us apart from others.
We’ve seen great growth over the past eight years and a lot of it has to do with our connection with the Deaf and signing community. The community— which also includes interpreters and allies as community members—values our integrity and commitment to what Convo stands for. Many interpreters attend our events to learn more about us and from there, we initiate, build, and maintain our relationships with them. We also maintain contact with interpreters who did not succeed in passing our screening process because we care about and want to encourage the positive progression of their professional development. All interpreters, whether they work for Convo or not, are members of our community and we make every effort to treat them as such.
As we grow, we are continuously hiring employees. We are now a mid-sized company and see many ways we can continue to thrive and grow.
SMG: An article featured in the June 2016 issue of WIRED highlighted that many other businesses are now beneficiaries of this new relay technology. Can you elaborate?
Betts: As a Deaf-owned business, Convo has a firsthand understanding of the unique needs of a Deaf-owned and run business. We work closely with each one to provide the technology, resources, and support they need to thrive in a hearing world.
SMG: What do you forecast as the impact of these new video relay service (VRS) applications on the dynamics of communication between Deaf and Hard of Hearing customers and businesses? Do you see new VRS applications making this interaction easier?
Betts: We can definitely see the positive impact VRS has on the relationship between Deaf and Hearing people. There’s no doubt that many Deaf-owned businesses benefit from VRS. Not only do we benefit from VRS but we also make sure that VRS is shaped and designed to meet Deaf businesses’ needs.
Because of VRS, Deaf people are now on an increasingly equal footing. Deaf people are able to do much more than they ever did before with ease and higher efficiency. For example, Deaf business owners can now make their own calls rather than hire a hearing person to shoulder that responsibility. Not only does this give the business owner autonomy but it also creates opportunities to form direct connections with customers.
As a result of this equal footing, communication barriers are being broken through and we have an increased access to information. Ease of access equals opportunities and clearer channels of communication between Deaf and Hearing people mean that Deaf people can better share their unique signing-centric perspectives on all sorts of things. This makes the world a more interesting place.
SMG: Thank you!
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Where is the ASL version of the interview? English may not be accessible to some deaf people. Thanks much.