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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Attention to diversity should extend beyond the office

July 4, 2005

When people think of workplace diversity, they usually think co-worker relationships-how people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs work together. This focus is important but it's also incomplete. It fails to take into account another key diversity issue: The way businesses interact with diverse customers or clients. Today's consumer market is segmented into identifiable groups: Gen X-ers, or boomers, racial and ethnic minority groups, women, Americans with disabilities, etc. As the buying power of these groups grows, many successsful businesses are targeting them by: Paying greater attention to their tastes and desires; Developing marketing strategies to connect and resonate with specific groups; Developing new products and services to sell to those groups; and Training employees to provide "culturally competent customer service."

What does the customer want?

One of the biggest challenges for people trying to cross diversity bridges is simple communication. Often, what appears to be clear to one person is not clear to another person with a different background or experience.

Why? The fact is, most Americans have never been taught how to have conversations about differences. We think that pointing out a difference might seem rude or divisive.

When we realize that our diverse backgrounds can lead us to have different perceptions of the same situation, we can begin to focus on understanding the point of view of others and create an environment that addresses their needs.

People who are skilled in having conversations with people who are not like themselves seek out common ground while, at the same time, remaining open to and curious about differences. Culturally competent customer service accepts the needs and desires of customers as they are identified by the customer.

In short, companies successfully provide culturally competent customer service by practicing what is called The Platinum Rule: Treat others as they-not you-want to be treated.

Listening is key

How is this done? First, have a "learner mindset" when approaching each customer. That is a willingness to accept the customer's needs from the customer's point of view and adapting your way of providing service to meet those needs.

Listening to provide culturally competent customer service is more than just hearing what is said-it requires listening for clues as to why the customer's concerns matter to him or her, assessing their emotional state, and truly hearing what is being said, rather than jumping to conclusions and preparing a response before the customer has even finished speaking.

Companies that consistently deliver culturally competent customer service train their employees to be conscious of and responsive to a variety of people unlike themselves. They train their employees on good listening skills and on how to ask good questions.

Next steps

After listening, the employee should test his or her assessments of the customer's needs by asking questions and listening for further concerns. Asking the right questions lets people know that their concerns have been heard.

One delicate point: While stereotypes always should be rejected, cultural patterns can be useful to enhance understanding about groups of people. However, be conscious not to over-generalize about any group. Cultural patterns are open to exceptions because no individual is completely defined by his or her demographic group.

Therefore, a company representative wanting to provide culturally competent customer service should switch on their "learner mindset," put in gear their refined communication skills, and approach each customer as a unique individual.

Responsiveness to the needs of individual customers is the key to culturally competent customer service. Train your employees to provide culturally competent service and, over time, you will expand your customer base and inspire long-lasting customer loyalty.



Leek, former executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, is with Baker & Daniels LLP where she focuses her practice on diversity, equal employment and affirmative action matters. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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