Is Cultural Bias Hurting Your Bottom Line?

Consumers want to spend their money in places where they feel valued. They’ll remain loyal and recommend a business or salesperson when their expectations are exceeded and they’re happy with the service they receive.

That should come as no surprise. What may not be so obvious are the special considerations in dealing with customers whose cultural background is different from yours. In order to cater to an ever more diverse customer base, we need to recognize our biases and how those preconceptions influence our behavior. Whether or not we’re aware of it, our attitudes show through in every customer encounter.

The price of bias. In the United States, we live among an eclectic mix of cultural backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. We lead varied lifestyles and achieve different levels of education. More and more Americans live full lives well into their advanced years. These days, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of a “typical” family structure.

Given this diversity, business success demands that we carefully examine the subtle and not-so-subtle biases that affect our customer interactions. We may not intend to offend customers, and we may not mean to let our biases show, but customers know when they’re treated “differently.” Behavior that tells customers they’re not appreciated results in lost business.

Though we’d rather deny it, each of us has a “preferred customer profile” that defines the people we’d most like to deal with. This profile is assembled from years of experience and reflects an image of the people we feel are most likely to buy.

We begin by considering those with whom we’ve had the greatest sales success. A typical profile, for example, might be a man, 30s to 50s, well-dressed, and shopping alone for his wife or girlfriend. We then eliminate characteristics based on less-comfortable experiences we’ve had. We might, for example, conclude that members of a particular ethnic group never buy because they always want a discount, or that older people never want to spend a lot of money. Finally, we factor into the mix our own culturally based views and values. These might be negative (such as an animus against gays, perhaps) or positive (such as the belief that people of a particular race want the best quality and will spend a lot of money for it).

The result is an image of a customer who we feel deserves the highest level of service we can offer. Despite our claim that everyone is treated equally in our store, the portrait we create in our own minds subtly colors the quality of service. We subconsciously compare everyone who enters our store to the profile we’ve created. Those who diverge from that image may get a different level of attention from what we’d provide to our “ideal.” When these biases become firmly ingrained in the way we do business, certain customers may feel ignored or even rejected.

Consider a time when you as a consumer were treated in a way that made you feel uncomfortable or devalued. Women shopping alone for a car have often had this experience, as have many people for whom English is a second language. We’ve all been there in one way or another. Consider how it felt to have to convey to the salesperson that you were “serious.” Now, remember your response. Did you buy or take your business elsewhere?

Customers who feel devalued will usually look around for a place where they don’t have to work so hard to connect with the salesperson. In short, bias carries a heavy price tag.

Cultural differences. It’s important to learn about the diverse cultures in your market and understand how cultural differences affect your reactions to your customers. That way you can create an environment that welcomes the diversity in your client base. Seven specific areas directly affect customer service and sales success:

  • Styles of communication. Verbal and nonverbal communication styles vary according to ethnicity and culture. Direct eye contact, for example, is considered confrontational in some cultures yet a sign of honesty in others. A pat on the back or light touch on the arm is considered comforting to some, offensive to others. Take your cue from your customers. Ask questions that pertain to their interests and pay careful attention to their responses – both verbal and nonverbal. Assess your customer’s comfort level and respond in kind.

  • Conceptions of time. The American obsession with getting things done quickly is at odds with other cultures in which building the sales and service relationship is expected to take time. Pace your customer. Adjust your selling tempo to his or her mode and movement. If it appears the sale is taking too long, don’t let your frustration color your approach. Instead, step back and recognize that the sale will be made in the customer’s time – not yours.

  • What’s in a name? There are many cultures in which the use of a surname is a sign of respect, while using a given name is considered too familiar in a selling situation. In other cultures, a person’s title is as important as a name.

Regardless of culture, little is more important to a person than his or her identity. Make sure you get the name right. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in spelling or pronunciation, and don’t stop trying until the customer tells you it’s right. As a safe rule of thumb, always use a surname and proper title (Mr., Ms., or Dr.) until the customer gives you permission to use a first name.

  • Confrontation. In many cultures, direct confrontation (as in raising objections in a sales situation) is the norm. In others, people prefer harmony over conflict; they will never complain, which means you may never know what it takes to make them happy. Take advantage of opportunities in your sales presentation to clarify the customer’s need and level of interest. Use trial closing techniques to invite objections so you know where you stand. Consider using 30-day “satisfaction calls” after the sale to ensure that even your most docile customers feel that their feedback is welcome.

  • Appearance. Clothing and grooming standards vary widely by culture. In some cultures, native dress or a headdress is the norm. Adverse, curious, or even suspicious reactions to out-of-the-ordinary dress can make customers uncomfortable and less likely to buy.

  • Change vs. tradition. Americans generally tend to welcome change. In other cultures, greater value is accorded to tradition. Some cultures prefer tradition over change even when such progress brings improved products, styles, or services. For example, in many European cultures, a battery-operated quartz watch is considered far less desirable than a traditional, well-crafted mechanical watch.

  • Recommendations. Referral patterns vary with culture. In some cultures, people rely on their community or family to recommend businesses, products, and services. You may win the loyalty of an entire community by showing sincere appreciation to a single customer. In other societies, individuals prefer to make such choices entirely on their own.

Bridging the culture gap. Awareness of these diverse cultural norms can help you understand and deal with interactions that might otherwise seem baffling or uncomfortable. That might mean, for example, taking more time with certain customers, adopting a more (or less) formal approach, or changing the way you greet and respond to customers. Above all, you need to accept that your customers may not think as you do. You need to be aware of the messages you send through your words or behavior.

In a business that deals so directly with emotions, it’s important that we examine our behaviors and attitudes with a critical eye. It’s not about abandoning your values or making friends with people with whom you have fundamental value differences. Rather, it’s about scrutinizing your biases and recognizing how they affect customer interactions. Success in today’s business environment depends largely on our ability to create an exceptional experience for every customer.

There are few hard-and-fast rules for dealing with a diverse customer population. The greater your ability to adapt to each customer, the better your chances of success. Avoid facile assumptions. Think before you speak. Even if you’re not entirely comfortable in dealing with certain customers, you can show respect by making an effort to “ask, observe, listen, learn, and respond.”

Janice Mack Talcott and Kate B. Peterson are the principals of Performance Concepts, a company that trains specialty retailers.

The Changing Face of Your Customer Base According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2000:

  • Older Americans will control more than 50% of all discretionary income.

  • Two-thirds of those entering the work force will be women.

  • African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans will have a combined annual spending power of more than $650 billion.

  • More than $900 million will be spent annually on advertising and promotional campaigns aimed at specific ethnic groups.

  • The gay-and-lesbian market will represent more than $425 billion a year.