This is a contributed column by Bachul Koul, a principal at A.T. Kearney. Views are the author's own.
As an immigrant, queer, plus-sized, nonbinary individual, my existence and my experience in this world have been largely shaped by my otherness. The world is not built for each of my identities individually, let alone for how they intersect. A prime example is my experience as a nonbinary customer.
Consider something as simple as trying to purchase a product or service online. In nearly every instance, I'm immediately forced to select a binary identifier — Mr., Ms., or Mrs.; male, or female — or I'm not able to proceed with my submission of the form. This results in my having to either betray my identity and acquiesce to being misgendered by the company in all future communications or close the form and be excluded from the purchase or experience altogether.
The continuous message to me — and so many others like me — is that I don't belong and that I am not valued enough to be seen. On a personal level it's exhausting and disheartening. As a business professional, I believe that it's also a significant missed opportunity.
Nonbinary in a binary world
Gender-diverse people and cultures have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Numerous indigenous tribes in North, Central, and South America recognize three, four, and five genders. In Indonesia, the word bissu refers to people who encompass all genders or none at all. There are examples on every continent.
The concept of a gender binary — that is, dividing people between male or female — is relatively recent, compared to the historical precedent. Still, for many people, the idea of someone being nonbinary is hard to accept and understand. The Western world is engineered around the idea that men are like this and women are like that. But that's never been me. I know the sex of the body I was born into is female, but I don't identify with the female gender. I don't use female pronouns — my pronouns are them/they/their(s) — and I don't conform to feminine stereotypes. When they're attributed to me, I bristle or cringe — it just doesn't compute. Similarly, I don't identify as a man, and every time I'm called sir in public or I'm directed to the men's room, I react the same way.
For me, the daily reminders of my otherness are lonely and tiring, and often make me want to retreat. But these struggles have also shaped my desire to help myself, and others like me, to be seen and to genuinely experience what it feels like to belong: something that people like me don't often experience.
Case in point: as I was writing this piece, while I have seen glimpses of progress here and there, I couldn't recall a single time that I'd felt truly included and acknowledged by a brand or company. This was telling for me both personally and professionally, and I believe it is time for a major change.
Creating an inclusive customer experience
Over the years, I've seen companies evolve from focusing on customer service to customer excellence to this new era of customer experience. Along the way, many companies have recognized the importance of diversity, from having a wider variety of language options, to showing interracial or gay and lesbian couples in advertisements.
But as I highlighted in my experiences above, we still haven't reached what I would call true customer inclusion. It is time we stopped having companies or brands define who we are; we define ourselves and companies should then react to be inclusive of all potential customers.
For instance, I recently signed up for an online streaming service, one that touts its commitment to diversity in its programs and in its hiring. Yet, signing up required that I select either male or female; and here's where the customer conversation inevitably turns to data and analytics. Companies have collected a ton of data on their customers over the years — the problem is that the data is based on heuristics that don't accurately reflect the truth about the world we live in or who we really are as customers.
Customer inclusion is about understanding your customers for who they are — and the reality that they may not fit easily into one box regarding gender, sexuality, race, or any other aspects of their identity.
The streaming service provider was very polite in their response to my objection over having to select male or female, but they added that they only did so in order to tailor my experience and select the best programs for me. Well, here's the thing — for the most part, if you tailor my experience to a 35-to-40-year-old female (all other intersectionality ignored), I will likely not identify with any of the programming you recommend.
Customer inclusion is about understanding your customers for who they are — and the reality that they may not fit easily into one box regarding gender, sexuality, race, or any other aspects of their identity. So how does a company account for a more nuanced consumer market — and create a more inclusive customer experience?
Here are a few recommendations for how you can better serve your customers by better empowering and enabling your employees.
Don't just have corporate values; live them
The last thing you want is for your customers to think you're pandering to them. Fostering an inclusive culture is the antidote to this and it starts with corporate leadership. Consider whether the actions, decisions and communications coming from your company reflect its stated values. The approach must be holistic, with your company making inclusion a priority at every step, from recruiting to hiring to talent development that reaches the C-suite, as well as from communications to marketing to customer adoption and relationship management.
For instance, you can't say you're an inclusive company if you allow your leaders to opt out of inclusive practices, such as holistic benefits for LGBTQ+ employees. Define your culture, core purpose, and values and then ensure you're living them by embedding them into both formal and informal organizational mechanisms. Creating an inclusive workplace will help ensure that your customer journeys are being shaped with a diversity of perspectives.
Create a safe space for questions and discussions
As companies evaluate how they can move toward an inclusive customer experience, employees may have questions. Establish a time and space for people to ask what they need to ask without feeling judged. Don't expect employees who identify as nonbinary, LGBTQ+, or any other affinity group for that matter, to provide all the answers and education for your workforce.
Take advantage of online and third-party resources — bring in a third party to facilitate the discussion and education. Then encourage staff to take what they've learned and teach others. Enabling your employees to educate themselves and each other on inclusive practices will also help shape how they interact with your customers.
Examine your teams to ensure they're inclusive and empowered
Company leaders need to look critically at their teams and consider what voices are represented — and what voices are missing. This remains an uphill struggle, especially for executive teams, which are still primarily comprised of white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Yet the value of a diversified leadership team is extremely significant. Many studies have shown that organizations with diverse leadership teams posted bigger profit margins than their rivals. Why? They have a variety of viewpoints and experiences in the room, and an increased ability to understand and communicate the nuanced needs of their customers.
In the same vein, product and service teams should reflect the communities they serve as well. Most importantly, just having diverse teams isn't enough — unless everyone is empowered to share their perspectives, your teams will not be truly inclusive.
Provide training on unconscious bias and microaggressions
Consider that while more than 96% of large companies (1,000 or more employees) report that they have diversity programs, three-quarters of employees in underrepresented groups still don't feel like they've benefited from these initiatives. This information comes from a study, published in the Harvard Business Review, that revealed that members of most majority groups tend to "underestimate the obstacles — particularly the pervasive, day-to-day bias — that diverse employees face."
Offering regular training on unconscious bias and microaggressions, which are subtle and often unintentional acts of discrimination, can go a long way toward creating a culture that includes all your employees. This is also why companies need to gather feedback from more than one perspective on their marketing, branding and communication campaigns.
There have been more than a few ad campaigns in recent memory that made it clear there was no diversity of perspective from concept to design to publication.
There have been more than a few ad campaigns in recent memory that made it clear there was no diversity of perspective from concept to design to publication. Seeking out that valuable input before you launch campaigns can ensure that you don't exclude or offend current or potential customers.
Prioritizing customer inclusion — the payoff
The customer experience has undoubtedly evolved, but there's still work to be done — both online and in brick-and-mortar locations (think: retail store displays). By prioritizing customer inclusion, companies can not only access a market of consumers that have long been excluded from the conversation, but also amplify a more diverse and inclusive narrative of the human experience.