Customer Service in a Diverse World
By Missi Salzberg
Michael is white. He is kind of shy and nervous, and he has epilepsy. He has to be careful not to put himself in stressful situations, because it can trigger his seizures.
Cosita is latina. Her family is from Puerto Rico, which makes her American, and yet she lives in a world where her family’s first language is not spoken by many, and members of her family are not fluent in English — yet.
Harley’s people are Irish, and I mean Boston “Southie” Irish. He is white and blends right in.
Riley lost his leg in a bad car accident, but he is absolutely unlimited by his challenge and runs right into the store when he visits.
Fergie is black and has two moms, both of whom are white. She is very small, but she likes to get right in the middle of all of the bigger kids that are playing in daycare.
Doggy daycare, that is, because Michael, Cosita, Harley, Riley, and Fergie are all dogs. Yes, dogs, my friends. Dogs with disabilities and challenges, different family ethnicities, different sets of parents, and different colors, and yet they are all… dogs.
So when Michael looks at Fergie, what does he see? A little black dog with two female owners? No, Michael just sees another dog. When Harley meets Riley in the groom room, does he make a judgment about him and his challenges? No, he just sees a bigger dog that he sniffs nose to nose, and the introduction is the same as with the four-legged dog he sniffed a moment ago. And Cosita never has to deal with any discrimination based on her native tongue, because dogs all bark the same language!
We have so much to learn from our canine friends. The world is ever-changing, and the makeup of who we are, the color of our skin, who we are married to, and the language we speak get more and more diverse with each passing year. Regardless of what political party you belong to, the election this past November showed us an American people that is more different than it is similar. The face of who we are as Americans has more shades than ever before, and it will only get more diverse, not less, as time goes by. I, for one, embrace this incredible spectrum of what it means to be American through a lens that focuses on citizenship, patriotism, and belief in freedom and not on skin color, religious beliefs, who we choose to love, or our income.
As this world changes and the population we serve gets more diverse, it is important to recognize this in our places of business. For some of us in busy, urban areas, this shift has been going on for years. For others, nothing in their more rural neighborhoods has changed. But we all have the same important lessons to learn. We must welcome these diverse populations into our businesses, be more educated about our own communities, and strive to be inclusive and boldly accepting of the variety of customers that choose to do business in our establishments.
There are some incredibly important things you need to know about all of the people that bring their pets into your business. Regardless of their race, gender, income, or whatever microscope you may put them under, they all have three vitally important things in common. First, they are making a conscious decision to do business with you. They have invested in this relationship by being there, walking through the door, or picking up the phone. Second, they trust you with the care of a beloved family member. We all know how deep this love for pets can be, and it is not a small decision for them to leave their babies in our care. Third, and this is where the bottom line kicks in, whether they are white or brown or yellow or purple, their money — if it is U.S. currency — is green. When it comes to the bottom line and being a successful business person, we should all be color blind.
How do we open our businesses to this diversity? How do we manage some of our own struggles with other peoples’ realities and lives? How do we create an atmosphere of acceptance and openness to diversity? Some people may say at this point, “I won’t! I will have a business that welcomes only people like me and that’s it!” You folks may want to skip to the next article at this point or maybe, just maybe, be open and able to listen just a little longer.
There are so many factors that contribute to great customer service. I have written about them many times over the years. Good phone manners, greeting people with a smile, knowledge of products, etc. Let me focus just a little bit of great customer service for an ever-growing diverse customer base. It is like taking a great photograph. You just have to tweak your focus a little or maybe step outside your comfort zone and work the lens from a different angle.
Here are some suggestions:
Recognize the different cultures in your service area. Whether they are cultures based on religious beliefs, nationality, or socioeconomic similarities, be aware of who you are serving. In our immediate area, we have a very active Jewish community, and we honor holidays for our Jewish customers. We honor the Christian holidays, too, but we strive to recognize everyone in our customer base. We also recognize other faith’s holidays, and as we grow to know our customers, we will always be ready to acknowledge their celebrations and holy days.
What do I mean by socioeconomic “culture”? I am suggesting that in my customer base, and in many of yours, there are differing levels of income, education, and in our customers’ core belief systems, different expectations about what customer service means to them. For example, I am working class. I always have been. I have a particular ease with other people from my “class.” We speak the same language and have many of the same struggles, and we identify with one another. I also have a pocket of customers that are wealthy, highly educated, and very “Old Yankee” New Englanders. I am not suggesting that they get “better” service, but I am suggesting that I must actively look for what they define as their expectations for great customer service and align myself to those expectations.
Here’s an example. When Becky comes through the door with her Golden, I call her by her first name. I may shout, “Hey girl!” and smack her Golden on his big gold butt and call him a funny name. She is a vet tech at a local animal hospital, our parents knew each other, and we have very similar backgrounds. She doesn’t care how long we keep her dog, because in her mind, he is with friends for the day.
When Mr. Doherty comes in a few minutes later, I say, “Good morning, Mr. Doherty. How are you today, sir?” An elderly and distinguished man, he smiles at the good manners, and replies, “Wonderful! What time can I pick my baby up?” I have already made a space on the docket to get his beloved Poodle out early, because this is what is important to Mr. Doherty.
It is not that one customer deserves something better or deserves more respect or consideration. Rather, it is that we must identify what matters to our customers and meet them from that place. I will also add that I never allow any disrespect from any customer to either myself or my staff. We will always step up to meet our customers’ wishes so long as they are communicated respectfully. Mr. Doherty is a little more high maintenance, but he is always a lovely gentleman.
Recognize that many cultures outside of the U.S. place great emphasis on the importance of relationships in their business dealings. The dynamics between the people doing business are key to many cultures. Be aware that people are looking for connection and not just a great haircut or a good value. As our community has changed, many of the referrals we have gotten are from person-to-person within similar cultures. I think this is one great advantage to the independently owned pet establishments. Personal, more intimate service is highly valued.
Be a great listener when you have new customers. Observe what they are placing value on. By paying attention and doing more listening, you can identify what a customer’s priorities are. What do they talk about? What bits of information do they offer up in your initial meeting? Is there anything personal, or is it strictly business? You can identify what they are looking for beyond the actual service you offer. Yes, everyone wants a grooming for their pet, but what is important to them? Many customers allude to their faith, their career, their kids, or their down-time activities. Make mental notes to reconnect down the road.
Ask questions! I engage with my customers to learn new things about their lives whenever I can. If I feel that the door is cracked in our communication, then I want to learn. I won’t always identify with my customers, but that doesn’t mean I won’t respect their lives. We have a conservative religious community nearby, and the hierarchy of the genders is not anything I can identify with, any more than other people may identify with aspects of my life. As my customers, and as my fellow human beings on this planet, they respect me, and I respect them. After all, I grew up listening to my mother’s tales of St. Francis of Assisi, one of her favorite saints because of his kind heart and love for all God’s creatures. Likewise, we have several families from the evangelical culture who bring their dogs to us, because they know that their pets will be well-loved and that they will be treated honorably.
Finally, bring diversity into your own world. Hire a diverse staff. Fortunately my crew is the real rainbow connection, and that’s a mirror of the spectrum of customers I want to draw into the shop. Have your staff on board to what it is you want to communicate to your customers. Place importance on being a welcoming establishment. In an article by Rick Conlow, I found a tool called “PACT,” which would be an easy sign to put up for your employees:
- P: Practice being polite, respectful, and helpful with all people. (For example, no rude jokes or offensive stories allowed.)
- A: Accept the differences in others without judgments. Accept the similarities, too.
- C: Collaborate and communicate with all people by being a good listener.
- T: Treat all people with dignity, fairness, and equal opportunity.
By opening your business place to the diverse population in our world, you will only be more successful, more aware, more able to service your customer base, and hopefully, more loving. That is another lesson we could always learn to do a little better from our dogs, isn’t it? The whole unconditional love thing.