The unconscious bias that lurks in customer service
Updated: Jul 19
When we reach out to customer service, we hope that the person on the other end of the phone will take ownership of our problem or issue and do for us what they would do for themselves, their family, or friends. The golden rule. Unfortunately, we all know from experience that that is not always the case. We often hear one customer's experience and outcome being quite different from another's when dealing with the same problem.
If we asked any customer service rep or supervisor if they were biased towards certain customers (positively or negatively), they would adamantly deny it. We all want to think that our company, our co-workers, and ourselves are even-handed when dealing with customers. The reality is that I am biased, you are biased, all humans are biased. That means that how we deliver service is inherently biased given that we are all humans.
Implicit bias is a universal phenomenon, not limited by race, gender, or even country of origin.
Having a bias does not mean that we are racist or discriminatory. It simply means we are human. We develop biases organically based on where we were raised, our family dynamic, where we went to school, where we work, our individual life experiences, where we go for information, who our friends are, and more. Bias is the lens through which we see the world.
While we may have the best intentions, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see our personal biases creep into our interactions with customers. We show our personal bias when we are in favor of or against one thing, person, or group over another -- whether positively or negatively -- in an unfair way. This is where favoritism sits side-by-side all the other 'isms', like racism, ageism, chauvinism, and classism.
Much research has been done on the subject of 'bias', particularly over the last 30 years. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, was able to demonstrate one simple truth: "The vast majority of human decisions are based on biases, beliefs, and intuition, not facts or logic." Although that's a scary thought, I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone.
What are Conscious and Unconscious Bias?
There are two types of bias. The first is explicit or conscious bias. This happens when we are very clear about how we feel about someone or something. When we act on those feelings, attitudes, or perceptions, we do so with intent. We are fully aware that we are doing it and, because we are aware of it, there is no excuse for seeing these biases in our customer service interactions.
Unconscious bias is the opposite. We aren't aware that we have these biases as they are working in the background of our minds. They are unintentional. We have them, but we don't know we do, making them the most challenging to manage.
That's why we may find ourselves giving one customer the benefit of the doubt while sticking unrelentingly to the policy with another. Or engaging in a highly personal way with one customer but not with another. Our unconscious draws a connection between this customer and our bias influencing how we respond.
Why does Bias Thrive in Customer Service?
How can something we don't know we have, impact how we act? It is because our brain is wired that way. Our brains can consciously process 40 pieces of information per second, while we unconsciously process 11 million pieces of information. To keep up with all of the information we are receiving, our brain creates mental shortcuts that make decision-making easier. These mental shortcuts group information together into categories and stereotypes (rather than specific details) in an effort to reduce the load on our brain.
That's why during periods of high stress in a contact center, agents hear a phrase like "When will my shipment arrive?" and they automatically respond as if the customer is complaining or upset -- because the last 40 callers were! The customer may simply be calling to confirm the delivery date. Or why we may treat people with names that are foreign sounding to our ear and background differently from those within our own culture or background. We don't intend to but we do.
Bias also affects our sense of fairness. We may have strong conscious values related to 'fair treatment for all,' but our unconscious bias may cause us to feel that 'this person deserves it more than that one'. If you have ever made a decision based on your 'gut feeling,' you are doing so based on unconscious bias. We tend to relate better with customers who are more like ourselves or our family and, therefore, are biased toward treating them differently. Likewise, if we have had difficulty with a certain type of personality or group of people, we may take a tougher stance and withdraw.
That's why if you are empowering your frontline agents to extend credits, free shipping, or other special perks to resolve customer service issues, you must provide specific guidelines. It's why high-performing customer service organizations spend so much time and effort documenting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). SOPs help minimize unconscious bias from finding its way into our day-to-day decision-making process.
How to Combat Unconscious Bias in Customer Service?
The only way to 'unbias' your organization or team is to become aware of it. When we are aware of our biases, we can shift our unconscious responses to conscious ones – and tackle them head-on. Like most things, change starts with leadership:
Model the behavior you want to see.
Involve your team in understanding and addressing their own biases.
Leverage quality monitoring to help uncover 'unfairness' in your customer service practices.
Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington created Project Implicit to develop a Hidden Bias Test to measure and uncover unconscious bias. If you are curious about discovering your own hidden biases, take the test!
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