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How diversity can drive next level customer service

Diversity has taken root as a key business imperative but what is its role in strengthening customer service?
January 2023

From retail to hospitality, logistics to telecoms, we have all had our share of customer service experiences, both good and bad. But how can diversity propel better standards? How can leaders generate greater diversity amongst their customer-facing workforce? And why is diversity so important in delivering improved customer satisfaction?

Leaders increasingly recognise that diversity is simply good business: Forbes Insights has found that 65% of senior executives said recruitment of diverse employees was their top priority, recognising that diversity of approaches, points of view and cultures contribute towards better decisions and improved performance. And prospective employees are also prioritising those companies where there is a mixed workforce — a Glassdoor survey found that 67% of applicants consider diversity an important factor when deciding where to work.

At the same time, it is clear that wide disparities continue to exist across the customer service landscape. As standards shift and service quality fluctuates — sometimes dramatically — it is important to remember that customer service remains key to the customer experience and should often be viewed through a global prism. Large scale customer service centres exist in countries such as India and South Africa on behalf of the European market but at the same time, there are many opportunities to integrate new technological advances, such as artificial intelligence.

I think it's really liberating for customer service agents to be able to be themselves more and bring part of their own personality into the conversations and the way they deal with customer issues. Their individual uniqueness is a strength, especially as our customers are equally diverse.
Dekyi Boorsma director of customer service, Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Netflix

It was against this backdrop that we brought together a group of senior female customer service leaders to consider how customer service is changing, understand how organisations in different industries are approaching these issues, and learn from their own experiences about how diversity can enhance customer service.

Here are some of their top insights.

No customer service team can succeed without diversity. Diversity helps improve team performance which, in turn, improves customer service. It not only strengthens a company’s brand, but also its workforce, for both current and prospective employees. Diversity, though, is not just about gender. Different skills, roles and experiences are needed, from innovators to practitioners to communicators, to help bring customer service into the future.

There remain opportunities to do more, such as being more inclusive towards those with disabilities. But even more important is generating a sense of belonging amongst team members. The priority is to make them feel they fit in but creating this emotional connection doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it should form part of everyday business for a leader’s core team, rather than being the preserve of the HR department.

The pandemic has played a significant role in accelerating both innovation and greater use of technology. Today, hybrid working amongst customer service teams is increasingly the norm and this has helped keep the issue of diversity to the fore. With different people having different working preferences, leaders now have to manage virtual meetings, where some are happy to talk and others are more introvert. Overseeing high engagement and group cohesion in these circumstances, when you’re not benefiting from the natural energy and motivation of colleagues together in the office, heightens the challenge for leaders in recreating a one-team community.

The pandemic has shifted us towards a more digital approach. Our customer service teams have had to build their selling capabilities, and this reflects the broader trend of our company to continue to grow and to be accessible to customers.
Laura Monari global customer experience manager B2B, Nespresso

Covid also fuelled the shift towards digital channels. Using technology to optimise the way organisations engage with customers represents a huge opportunity for customer service organisations — and technology companies have an in-built advantage here. Automation of processes can be used to strengthen supply chain resilience and increase efficiency, while artificial intelligence can help organisations forecast what their customers will order in the future, helping them deploy their assets most effectively.

Customer service leaders also want to be able to use technology to take the feedback they receive and analyse it in a better and more efficient way. Customer journey mapping involves using technology to understand customers’ preferences and steering them towards the communications channel they prefer. This, in turn, helps customer service advisors add value as they are using their knowledge in different ways, elevating them into trusted experts — thereby increasing their motivation and pride.

The best performing organisations recognise that customer service teams can be their competitive advantage. This means ensuring they are available, they respond to calls quickly and are knowledgeable and polite should be core priorities.

More than diversity and inclusion is the sense of belonging. Leaders should seek to avoid any unconscious bias towards the people they are managing. Every person is unique and leaders need the right tools and skills to recognise this.
Fadzlun Sapandi executive vice-president of global HR, DHL Express

Customers increasingly recognise those companies with good quality service and this can impact their purchasing decisions, particularly when it comes to larger items such as a car, for example. Customers will want to know what they can expect if there are mechanical issues and what support they will receive.

Customer service has always been an extension of a company’s brand so in in some ways it has always been part of product. But now there is so much technology available via apps and other channels, the actual issues being addressed in call centres are much more value add.

While upskilling workforces remains important, leaders now seek out those customer service advisors who have strong résumés in order to give them the freedom to exercise their professional judgement.

Next generation customer service leaders will have to deploy new capabilities every year. A key aspect will be managing the demands of a diverse workforce, bringing together teams both at home and in the office. Leaders have to be able to adapt quickly to the demands of younger colleagues, managing their own unconscious bias and evolving technologies, while also juggling the changing needs of customers. The next generation will also need a basic understanding of technology and knowledge of customer interface technologies — what artificial intelligence is supporting, how big data is being used within compliance and privacy restrictions and so on. This means they need to be at ease with the process and systems in order to be able to initiate discussions with customers about how to improve their experience. Leaders therefore need to understand the role of each of their teams towards this end goal.

Those customer service advisors who excelled at specific tasks are no longer as much in demand. Today, leaders are prioritising well-rounded generalists who combine strong judgement with a focus on people and creativity. Thanks to hybrid working, there is a wider array of talent to choose from, including those individuals who can only work part time and are unable to commute.

There is also now a greater focus on career development paths. Customer service is now seen as a high quality career option as individuals recognise they can make an impact in this field in a meaningful way. Implementing tailored career paths will accelerate this process and change even more perceptions over time.