Embrace Diversity

By Ron Rosenberg

It’s important to understand your customers' needs, expectations, and motivations in order keep them satisfied over the long haul. We often tend to forget this and take a one-size-fits-all approach to our customer interactions.

Understanding the ways that our customers differ, in fact, allows us to present a more comprehensive approach to meeting their needs and helping them understand that you truly care about them.

Diversity can come in many different forms, but the key to developing good customer relations is to understand the diversity of your customer base. Here are three of the most important areas of diversity that you need to consider.

Cultural Diversity

Race, country of national origin, and region of birth - all of these help define where we come from and who we are now. But a surprising number of companies fail to recognize this.

For example, early in the development of my training and consulting business I had licensed a training program with the intent of offering it in my mix of courses. The program featured video clips of different management situations that the students were supposed to watch and analyze.

The problem was that with two notable exceptions, an African-American man and a white woman, the manager in every single scene was a white male, aged 35-50. This presented a problem because the first group I was supposed to deliver this training to was at least one third Asian - mostly from the Indian subcontinent or from the Far-East. The company that developed this program had failed to recognize the diversity of the audience that may be viewing these tapes. In order to meet my customers' needs more appropriately I decided to eliminate the tapes and teach the course using a more interactive and inclusive approach.

Cultural diversity can also be determined by specific regions within a particular country. People in one particular region may have a very different belief system than another region. Try to recognize the rich cultural diversity in your customer base. Make an effort to learn and understand the traditions and practices that form the foundation of their belief systems.

Going beyond cultural diversity, take into consideration each individual customer based on his or her immediate needs, and how you and your organization can help deliver on these needs.

Language Diversity

Language is another area of diversity. In Europe and other areas of the world where many languages are spoken, language is a major factor to consider when looking at your customer base.

Even in the US, we also need to look at language in the customer mix. In fact, according to the most recent US census, Hispanics now comprise the largest minority group in the United States, as well as the fastest growing minority population. And yet in many companies that cater to Spanish-speaking individuals, I rarely find anyone who speaks Spanish. I have seen some strained conversations between English-speaking employees and non-English-speaking customers, with the employee usually becoming clearly frustrated at the customer's inability to communicate effectively in English.

At least some companies are taking positive steps. During a recent visit to my local Duron Paint store, while waiting for my paint to be mixed, I flipped through a catalog that was sitting on the counter. At the halfway point of the document something strange happened. The next page was upside down and was written in Spanish. I had reached the end of the Spanish version of the catalog that had started from the opposite end of the catalog. I asked the clerk if he spoke Spanish. He said he didn't, but since 70 percent of his customers did, the company had the catalog printed in Spanish. This way, he said, if his customer couldn't speak English very well, at least they could find what they wanted in the catalog and point.

This is a good starting point for accommodating the needs of your customers. But wouldn't it be better to learn some of the language? Anything you can do to learn even a bit of the languages your customers use can go a long way towards building lasting relationships. For instance it may be in a call center where the message says, "To continue in English, press 1; para continuar in Español  marque el 2." It may be a clerk who can speak a few words in French or a shopkeeper in a small town in Spain who can converse freely with customers in English, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. Any effort  to converse in the other person's language is appreciated and helps build customer loyalty.

Educational Diversity

One final area in which your customers can exhibit an incredible amount of diversity is in the area of educational background. Your customers may have completed postdoctoral work in a very specific discipline of chemistry, or may not have finished high school. They may have taken specialized technical training, or done research in the Australian Outback.

And of course, formal education is not always an accurate indicator of intelligence. We all know people who were straight-A students in school but have the common sense of a pea. We also know people who can't comprehend physics, but are able to play the piano by ear without any formal training, and others who may not be artistically inclined but may be extremely articulate. Your customers may exhibit a fairly broad spectrum of intelligence with areas of both strengths and weaknesses.

You can make a serious mistake of underestimating or overestimating the level and type of intelligence of your customers. For example, placing an ad for artist supplies using long-winded, verbose copy would probably not connect well with that audience. Neither would describing the applicable principles of electrical engineering when describing the features of a circuit breaker in an electrical supply catalog.

I remember a call I made to Microsoft technical support several years back to ask a question about a fairly complicated graph I was trying to create. I listened in amazement as the technical support representative gradually began to explain what I needed to do in increasingly higher and higher levels of technical complexity. It was as if she was recognizing without actually asking that I was technically competent (my undergraduate degree is in computer science) and that I was able to grasp what she was explaining.

This made the call go much more smoothly because she didn't have to explain what to do in "baby-step" terms: "Now do you see the menu item called 'File'? Move the mouse to that word and press the left button. Great! Now look at the list of items that drops down..." She was able to successfully complete the call much more quickly, and I didn't feel like she was being condescending as I frequently do on calls like this.

This is why it is important to train your customer-contact employees to be able to assess the customer's level of expertise and adjust their interaction with that customer to reflect this.

Diversity Can Be a Competitive Marketing Advantage

If you take the time to understand your customers - to identify their unique attributes and tailor your products and services to these characteristics - you will be far ahead of your competitors who take a "one-size-fits-all" approach to customer service.

Everybody is different, but we all have one thing in common: we all want to feel special and appreciated. The businesses that understand this and make the extra effort to demonstrate it will stand out from the crowd every time.