Service and Experience with J. H. Halm: That’s biased!

  • discrimination and the customer’s experience

You can say that human beings are wired funny. Think about it. Why should our differences become sources of discrimination? For instance, why should the skin colour or the shape of one’s eyes be used against the one? It is not as if the individual went out of his or her way to acquire that skin colour. Why should one’s accent become an issue to be ridiculed? Accents are acquired just because of where one grew up and how many kids get to choose where they are born or where they grow up? Why should an individual’s appearance be used against the one? No one gets asked to make a choice in the genetic lottery.

Discrimination or bias of any kind is really absurd when one really considers it. In an ideal world, there would be no bias, of any kind. However, this world is far from ideal. Discrimination does occur, even in the business world, and even with respect to customers. As individuals are placed in positions where they have to serve or deal with other humans, the tendency for discrimination is always ever present. As with all types of discrimination, wrong assumptions are almost always at the root. And when that happens, it is the customer’s experience that suffers.

The negative effects of discrimination and bias against customers can be seen in various ways. For one, customers will suffer from self-doubt when they are discriminated against. These customers would wonder if there is something wrong with them which led to the biased attitude from the employee. A customer feeling that way will definitely not enjoy the experience. You cannot blame such a customer. Who, in their right senses, would want to be in an environment where they are regarded as second-class humans?

Another effect of bias towards customers is that it can leave the customer feeling embarrassed. Sometimes, the embarrassment can be really traumatic for the customer in question. This is especially true if the discrimination takes place in the presence of other customers. That customer will also definitely not enjoy that experience. Who enjoys being embarrassed?

In some instances, the bias against customers can actually lead to customers taking legal action against the organisation. There are those customers who will not take discrimination lying down. They will fight back. There are several examples of businesses that were forced to cough up huge sums of money in settlements to customers who had suffered some kind of discrimination. In 2017, when one US-based financial institution was found to charge Black and Hispanic customers more for home loans than it charged customers who were White, the settlement agreed run into more than 50 million United States dollars.

Even if customers who have been discriminated against do not take legal action, there is always the high probability that the customer will tell others about the poor experience. That can sometimes even be worse than taking the matter to court. If the aggrieved customer takes the case to the Online Court of Customer Dissatisfaction, i.e. The Internet, then the brand in question is in danger of some real damage.

If enough people are appalled by the discriminatory behaviour, if there is real public anger, it could lead to a whole boycott of the business and brand in question. This will be in addition to all the negative media stories that will accompany the noise generated by the boycott. There are enough studies and true stories to prove that customers are prepared to stop doing business with organisations that have been accused of any kind of bias towards customers.

It is one thing when a front line employee deliberately discriminates against a customer, either out of ignorance, lack of familiarity with a particular group of people or out of sheer partiality. Such a situation is easier to tackle head on. The employee is clearly aware of what he or she is doing. It is therefore easier to talk to such an employee about the negative effects of such behaviour. If the one refuses to change, then the right punitive measures can easily be taken against the one.

It is however a totally different thing when the bias is unconscious. This refers to the kind of bias that customer-facing employees display without even knowing that they are displaying such bias against customers. What makes this kind of bias more difficult to tackle is that the employee is not even aware the bias exist. How do you help someone who does not even know he or she needs that help?

Such a front line employee would easily choose to serve one customer and ignore another customer without even considering why he or she did that. Such an employee would listen to two customers making the same complaint and will choose to do something about one customer’s complaint and totally ignore the other customer’s. Such a customer service employee would be doing all of these things without knowing they are actually doing that. As a matter of fact, customer-handling employees displaying unconscious bias would argue and defend themselves against any such accusation.

In handling bias by customer service employees and other front line employees, researchers in an article published in the November-December 2021 edition of the Harvard Business Review came up with some interesting ideas. Titled, “Fighting Bias on the Front Lines”the report stated that it was helpful to break the organisation’s service delivery into three dimensions when addressing the issue of bias towards customers. These three dimensions are classified as Exchanges—the provision of core products and services; Extras—help that goes beyond the minimum required and Etiquette—and the manner in which service is delivered. According to the study, customer-facing employees can be biased towards customers in all these three areas.

In terms of Exchanges, bias can occur in a variety of ways. Banking officials can discriminate with their approval of loans and other credit facilities. Even when loans are approved, discrimination can occur with respect to the rates that will be charged. Some customers might get lower rates while others, due to whatever discriminatory differences, are charged a higher rate.

Studies have even found that when it comes to auto repairs, front line employee would give higher quotes to women than to men. The idea being that women might know too much about these things. In much the same way, men who go to the market to purchase foodstuffs might also suffer bias with regards to prices. The market women would believe that men would not know too much about these things. That is gender discrimination.

Actually, even when customer are all given the same quality of service, some customers might be discriminated against by being served later than customers who had come after them. One customer might be called before another who might have come in later the first customer. This can be seen in some eateries.

When it comes to Extras, customers are treated to discriminatory services when some customers are given certain upgrades while others do not receive the same. When one group of customers are given discounts, not because they are more profitable customers, but because of their skin colour or hair type, that is discrimination. When two customers make the same enquiry but one customer receives a more detailed response while the other customer receives a dismissive one-worded response; that can be bias at play. In my experience, even the way the customer is dressed, can easily result in that customer being given a flippant attitude by the customer-facing employee.

Two customers might receive the same service and the same extra help. However, the way and manner in which each is served, the Etiquette, can show a bias against one of the two customers. If one receives a warm smile while the other gets the “”straight face”, that is bias. Something as seemingly insignificant as eye contact has been found to be a source of discrimination against customers.

Treating one customer with disdain but treating the next customer with admiration is a sign of bias. If the front line employee addresses one customer with respect and with a title but does nothing of that sort with the other customer, that is bias. Discrimination can also occur with the tone of voice used. A condescending tone is one such proofs of a discriminatory behaviour from a customer service professional.

One way by which discrimination at the front line can be handled is through training of employees. However, in cases where the bias is unconscious, it is important that the bias is unearthed first from the customer service employee. Thankfully, there are tests that individuals can take to bring out any biases that might be lurking in the deepest recesses of their minds. In many situations, just by making people aware of their hidden biases, they are able to turn over a new leaf. However, if that does not work, then there is a need for some training.

The role of the manager or supervisor cannot be discounted when it comes to curbing bias against customers. By intently observing the behaviours of customer-facing employees, a front line manager should be in a position to know which staff has a problem with bias. The challenge with managers handling discrimination against customers is that it is quite difficult to spot the discrimination, especially as a result of the busy nature of the manager’s job. It would take some conscious effort to observe discrimination as and when it happens.

For as long as customers are going to be served by other human beings, the potential or possibility is going to be there for some sort of bias or discrimination. And as has been discussed, discrimination goes a long way to negatively affect the customer’s experience. It is therefore imperative for organisations to take the issue of bias or discriminatory behaviour by their front line employees very seriously. After all, discrimination of any kind is wrong.

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