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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Applying DEI to Customer Service Ensures Hospitality for All

This DEI consultant, disability advocate and author explains how embracing DEI in business is not about politics: It’s about hospitality and inclusion.

As discussed in the first article of this two-part series, cancel culture and “woke” branding can be difficult for entrepreneurs to navigate. In this second article, we will dig deeper with Alison Tedford — a DEI consultant, disability advocate and the author of Stay Woke, Not Broke — as she explains how being woke in business is not about politics. It’s about hospitality.

The idea that the customer is always right has been a staple of the service industry for so long that the average customer today does not remember a time without it. And while it was a novel idea at one point in the previous century, it is now so ingrained as to have become a point of contention between service workers and those customers who expect everything to go their way all of the time. This notion of customer service puts many businesses in a position of playing clean-up instead of being proactive. Entire departments are dedicated to placating upset customers while DEI is given little more than lip service in many organizations. But what if there was an upgrade?

What Tedford suggests applies the idea of DEI to all aspects of business in a way that creates a culture of inclusion for customers and employees alike. And while this won’t eliminate the inevitable entitled customer that appears now and again, because hospitality will be better all around, the business will have an easier time attracting clients with shared values.

The idea is to always present the most universally comfortable situation without assuming to know how to best meet an individual’s needs. In practice, this mitigates many needs for accommodation and thus the feelings of discomfort that customers and employees experience from having to ask for them. An example Tedford gives is of setting up a hypothetical retreat for clients, being proactive about accessibility and eliminating venues with things like bunk beds. Doing so makes the environment more comfortable for everyone — whether they use a mobility device, have an invisible disability like neuropathy that would make it hard to climb a ladder, are scared of heights, sprain their ankle over the course of their stay or simply don’t want the discomfort of being stuck on the top bunk.

Does that mean no one will possibly need an accommodation? Of course not. It’s about making the best effort, not being able to meet everyone’s needs all of the time without anyone ever having to ask. In fact, asking the customer or employee what they need from the start can eliminate potential faux pas from false assumptions. For example, Tedford relayed her own experience of attending a music festival and being asked to leave a space that was closing. When she explained that she needed to remain due to a disability, she was directed to the elevator. The issue wasn’t mobility, however. The workers failed to meet her needs because they had assumed they knew what she needed without asking her. By asking instead of assuming they could have found her a place away from the crowd where she wouldn’t be in pain from being jostled. 

Tedford encourages small business owners to, in Tedford’s words, “Create a culture with a level of safety so people can ask for change.” She explained that sometimes people don’t know why they need a particular accommodation, they may not have a diagnosis, but they do know what they need and it is important to listen to them.

That culture of safety is just as important when it comes to communication and technology. “Ask people what they need. How do you learn best? What is the best way to communicate?”

Website accessibility is easy for many entrepreneurs to overlook if they are not proactive about it. Tedford encourages small businesses to extend the idea of inclusion-based hospitality to websites by paying attention to formatting. Video and audio should be captioned and transcribed. Alternative text should be provided to explain pictures or graphs since screen readers cannot interpret them. Dyslexia-friendly fonts can be used to create a more inclusive experience.

Diverse organizations are able to be more successful by virtue of having a greater range of perspectives, ideas and solutions. By applying DEI to customer service models, businesses can create a more inclusive environment that capitalizes on providing the best experiences for all while attracting customers, partners and employees with shared values. 

Image credit: Vishnu R Nair via Unsplash

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro