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

Posted January 8, 2019 - Updated July 29, 2021
Panorama of lots of toy blocks with reflections, concept diversity

Millennials, are both the largest living generation and the most diverse demographic in recent history. According to research group Brookings, nearly 30% of Millennials 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. And this change is not just happening in the U.S. either. As countries around the world become more culturally and ethnically diverse, the need arises 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 continue to increase in the years to come, customer service best practices should include tapping into the strengths of your culturally diverse team. Read on for three ways to deliver a better customer experience by embracing the diversity of your team.

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 require frontline customer service agents to 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 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 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, is unlikely to 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 LGBT2QA community, which provides mentoring, networking, peer support, volunteering and coaching opportunities. The group ensures that TELUS International drives a positive impact as a global LGBT2QA champion by empowering team members to work in a supportive and inclusive culture. Spectrum, and other initiatives like it, are making a real difference and it shows — talent acquisition firm, Mogul, recently named us in their Top 100 Workplaces With The Best D&I Initiatives in 2021.

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.

A study of 600 business decisions, conducted by collaboration software firm Cloverpop, revealed that teams that were diverse in terms of gender, geography and age were the most successful at making decisions. The diverse teams made better decisions than individuals 87% of the time, whereas all-male teams only did so 58% of the time. The study measured “better decisions” by tracking how often the decision maker changed their mind based on the input of the team, and found that decision makers changed their minds more often in diverse teams as a result of receiving a wider range of perspectives.

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 continue to develop cultural intelligence. Understanding cultural background and reference without overt generalizations can help team members empathize, 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 care, 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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