Customer diversity: and now for something completely different

The diversity and inclusion agenda has been dominated by an employee narrative: the glass ceiling, the bamboo ceiling, the pink ceiling. Indeed, a quick google research on the term “employee diversity” generates over 19 million hits. In comparison, our understanding of, and attention to, “customer diversity” lags far behind. Just 8 million hits, and many of those are driven by articles on income brackets, postcodes and broadband usage. Not quite the same focus.

Last week Deloitte and the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched “Missing out: The business case for customer diversity”. It fills a critical gap – identifying the risks of treating customers according to a single prototypical template, and more importantly, untapped opportunities.

Why did we miss what seems so obvious?

In hindsight, it makes good sense that organisations would apply the lens of diversity and inclusion from one significant group of people, their employees, to another – their customers. And gauging from the significant interest in Missing out – these insights are long overdue.

Everyone, every day, is a customer – and we all want to be treated respectfully and as a person, not as a number on an excel spreadsheet. So it’s not surprising that the findings from our survey of 1,200 Australians, subsequent interviews and focus groups, resonate broadly.

The snarly cashier; the product that comes with limited instructions; the inordinately long “on hold” telephone call. These are shared experiences for all customers, leading to a feeling that organisations could up their game. To put a number on that, only 59% of respondents thought that treating people respectfully is a priority.

Sadly, the negative experiences for diverse customers are more frequent and relate to an irrelevant personal characteristic. In fact, they are twice as likely to be discriminated against, or treated less favourably.

These statistics merely represent the accumulation of very human stories – about the local supermarket that doesn’t stock the products needed, the marketing campaigns that don’t reflect a diversity of body images and customer service representatives who make stereotypical remarks.

Each of these scenarios – told to us by people with a disability, or who identify as LGBTI, practice a noticeable Faith, are over 65, or come from a culturally diverse background – set up a series of negative emotions – fear, embarrassment, frustration and anger.

Not the emotions which lead to positive customer experiences and thus the purchasing of goods and services, loyalty and advocacy. Indeed between 1 in 3 – to – 1 in 2 told us that their customer needs were often unmet over the past 12 months. Up to 1 in 4 ceased a transaction midstream because they were treated disrespectfully, and about 1 in 4 dissuaded others from using a product or services because of an organisation’s negative reputation on equality. Those reactions are creating a sizeable hole in organisations’ wallets – but because they aren’t looking through a “customer diversity” lens, they are not picking it up.

Happily, there is a silver lining. When organisation’s do find out about a poor experience, diverse customers say that it was usually handled well (69%).

And here’s an even bigger opportunity that’s been overlooked. As customers we are much more likely to lean into an organization (and by that I mean transact with) that espouses support for gender equality, marriage equality, people with a disability, older people and those who practice a noticeable Faith. Indeed 1 in 4 of us were positively influenced to buy from an organization last year which espoused equality – while only 1 in 10 turned away.

And if we are a “diverse” customer, then the lean in rate is 1 in 2 – irrespective of the specific nature of the equality message. It’s less about matching an equality message to a specific demographic group (say LGBTI and marriage equality) and more about the good feeling that any message of equality generates.

In an age of political division, messages of equality reflect who we aspire to be. Smart marketers know this. It’s why Airbnb aired an advertisement at the US Superbowl with beautifully morphing culturally diverse faces – and Audi ran an ad about gender equality, profiling a young girl determined to win her go-cart race.

These messages speak extra loud to diverse customers who currently sit at the margins of how businesses define their ‘customer’.

This is timely research: clearly customers come in all shapes and sizes. More importantly it sets the stage for action. Here are 3 simple ideas to change the game:

  1. Start the ball rolling: Present the findings from Missing out to key stakeholders, such as your Customer service leaders and frontline staff – and discuss what it means to treat diverse customers with “respect” (e.g. review customer complaints)
  1. Run a communication audit: Run an audit on organizational communications (e.g. website, form letters, brochures) – and ask yourself whether the icons, language, stories and photos telegraph diversity or a more prototypical customer
  1. Proactively seek feedback: Seek feedback on your products and services from diverse customers, not the ones you traditionally ask – an easy way to do this is to tap into your internal Employee Resources Groups or external networks, another way is to look at social media sites (e.g. GlassDoor) for unsolicited reviews.

Download Missing out: The business case for customer diversity


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