Respecting Customers’ Customs


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Traditions and customs are an important part of all cultures and religions. As a service provider, it is vital to be sensitive to the needs and background values of your customers.

These customs may be based on the ethnic heritage, religion, socioeconomic status, and nationality of family origin of each different customer. Interpersonal skills that consist of mindfulness and the recognition of cultural differences display your “cultural competency,” and can give your business an edge in a niche market.

Determining Differences
Assessing the impact of language differences is an important step in giving exceptional customer service. There are many households in the United States where individuals older than 13 have limited proficiency in English. The 1999 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report estimated that over 35 percent of the population who list themselves as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders fell into this category. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau listed Hispanics as the largest minority group in the country.

Bob Helbing of Air-Tro in Monrovia, CA, offers that many families in their customer base are of Asian descent. Their employees are coached to be sensitive to the custom of taking shoes off before or immediately after entering the home. “Asking the customer if they would like us to remove our shoes shows that we are taking note, and showing sensitivity and respect.” Another situation they are trained to notice is if the cooking area is covered in grease, and the grease filter on the exhaust hood is clogged. “This often indicates that the main method of cooking in the house is by stir frying at high temperatures. The employees explain to the home owner the benefits of installing a commercial grade exhaust fan,” which will facilitate in keeping the cooking area well ventilated and clean.

Offering another viewpoint into the customs of a large Asian American customer base is John Farrugia of Home Comfort Heating and Air Conditioning in Los Angeles, CA. “We don’t generally take our shoes off, but we always ask our customers if they are ok with us wearing booties over our shoes in their home.” In cases where the company is setting up an appointment, they consider if there will be a female in the house alone at the time of the service call. Some cultures find that inappropriate. “Often they will set up a time when the husband or father will also be home.”

Randy Gibbs of Brody-Pennell Heating and Cooling in Los Angeles, CA, weighs in on serving the Asian community. “We respect our customers, and we are very aware of the custom involving not wearing shoes in the house. However, we are concerned about meeting our obligation to both federal and state safety standards for our technicians. Once we explain our need to meet OSHA guidelines and offer to wear booties in the house, the customers are almost always agreeable to our compromise.”

Be Neutral
Working across cultures offers many challenges, but keep in mind the following assumptions:

Customs and culture pertain to the group, but often are personalized on an individual level.

Both customs and culture are dynamic. They take on new forms and evolve over time.

Many factors play into the group and individual perception, including ethnicity, race, religion, gender, social status, and even sexual orientation.

Subconscious and automatic reactions on the part of the provider can influence the dynamics of the professional relationship.

Gibbs describes how important it is for, “technicians to be neutral. They have to be sensitive to the ethnic and religious differences of their customers. They need to be cognizant of exactly what they’re going to say, and concentrate on not offending the customers.”

Gibbs explains his service area has a high percentage of Jewish customers. The employees are familiar with many of their customs and are happy to accommodate them. Each week practicing Orthodox, and many conservative, Jewish people keep the laws and customs of the holy day, the Sabbath. The Sabbath starts roughly at nightfall on Friday, and is celebrated until nightfall on Saturday.

The Sabbath is a special time of rest, and there is no television, no shopping, and no use of electricity. Because of this, their Jewish customers “can’t turn on a light or a thermostat,” Gibbs offers. “We generally try to give them alternatives. We try to re-schedule their appointments before evening on Friday, or after the evening on Saturday.” To accommodate other Jewish holidays they “provide a work-around if possible, pushing up the service call, or delaying it until after the conclusion of the holiday.”

Be Open-Minded
Being open-minded and tolerant is following customer service best practices, and it helps to remember that there is no one right way to accomplish anything. Flexibility is always preferable to close-mindedness and intolerance.

The rapidly growing range of the U.S. population calls for providers to perform their services at an increasing level of ethnically and racially diverse sensitivity.

Melinda Wamsley
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Customer Service

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