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How to tap into the strengths of a culturally diverse customer service team

People and Culture

Millennials, expected to be the United States’ largest living generation as of this year, are also the most diverse demographic in recent history. According to research group Brookings, nearly 30 percent of Generation Y belong to the “new minorities,” defined as Hispanics, Asians and those who identify as two or more races.

Moreover, a report by the Census Bureau indicates that minorities will (ironically) form the majority of the U.S. population by 2044. The country’s population is becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse, and it’s driving the need for changes at all levels of society, including how brands approach customer service.

How best to serve culturally diverse customers

Customer service is all about putting the customer at ease, a task that can be complicated with different cultures, backgrounds and life experiences at play.

“Human beings typically have a higher level of trust, comfort and rapport with people who are similar to themselves, so when it’s an interaction on a cross-group level, there is the potential for less comfort,” says Patrick McKay, professor of Human Resource Management at Rutgers University.

Given that cultural diversity is expected to further increase in the years to come, customer service best practices should include tapping into the strengths of your culturally diverse team via these three ways in order to deliver a better customer experience.

1. Conduct sensitivity training

High-quality training from established experts can lay the foundation for customer service that’s both effective and culturally sensitive, says Wesley Tindal, chief operating officer at the National Customer Service Association. But, it’s not enough to make frontline customer service agents take the class. “Classroom training should encompass the entire organization, from the management team on,” Tindal advises.

Such training should hit on how different cultures define good customer service, how to handle complaints from minorities with care, how culture colors the concept of respect (hierarchical or caste-based cultures, for example, might set a greater emphasis on being able to speak to the manager) and how to benchmark what good multicultural customer service looks like. Companies should also focus on eliminating unconscious bias (a kind of stereotyping) at work as a way to improve customer service, McKay says.

He’s careful to note that training itself is not enough. “It’s got to be reinforced, tied into annual reviews and companies have to hold employees accountable,” he adds. “It’s not like a box that can be checked off and not attended to later.”

Companies need to be all-in when it comes to creating and fostering a diverse, inclusive workplace. “Employees will project the treatment they receive from the organization onto the customer, so companies should make sure they treat their employees with respect,” McKay advises.

It’s in their best interest to do so: A number of studies have shown happier workers are more productive — and feeling included and validated at work contribute to that sense of happiness.

2. Incorporate diversity into hiring practices

If the goal is to provide service to a diverse customer base, first look at how to make your workplace more inclusive. “Hiring a diverse team might mean you can speak the language of the customer,” Tindal says.

Having diverse teams has been shown to improve companies’ financial performance. According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, “diversity and inclusion in the workplace fosters creative thinking, innovation and problem solving, providing organizations — and the country — a competitive advantage.”

Meanwhile, a 2018 report by Harvard Business Review notes that diversity in national origin, industry origin and gender all have tangible positive results on companies’ bottom lines.

Employee diversity is important to serving people from different backgrounds and cultures, but be careful to avoid tokenism. Simply hiring people to satisfy a quota, without doing anything to promote workplace inclusion, may not yield the desired results.

TELUS International, for example, has a number of different resource groups designed to promote inclusion within the organization. One of which is Spectrum, the company’s community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allies, which provides mentoring, networking, peer support, volunteering and coaching opportunities. The group ensures that TELUS International drives a positive impact as a global LGBTQA champion by empowering team members to work in a supportive and inclusive culture.

3. Promote collaborative multicultural teams

The key to delivering excellent customer service is to not only hire diverse teams but to promote extensive collaboration between team members. Such collaboration can lead to innovation and creativity, which translates to a greater understanding of cultural nuances that make up customers’ differences.

Today’s globalized workforce values cultural intelligence — that is, an ability to relate to and learn from other cultures. Companies can make sure their teams are not just diverse, but that individual members improve on cultural intelligence. Understanding cultural background and reference without overt generalizations can help team members see the other person’s perspective, experts say.

Companies can promote collaboration by ensuring each team member’s voice and ideas are heard and respected, while at the same time having them work toward common goals. For some companies, this can mean “pods” of multidisciplinary employees working together to serve a particular subset of the clientele.

Global service

The bottom line, when it comes to customer service, is that no matter who we are, we want to be treated with respect.

Or, in the words of Michael Soon Lee, president of multicultural training and consulting firm, EthnoConnect: “We all want to be heard and we all want to have our problem solved… Remember, just because someone speaks English doesn’t always mean they understand you. Our new global world needs new global customer service training.”

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