The Key to Serving in a Multicultural Environment: Connecting with the Individual

Customer Relationship Management, Vol. III, No. 2, June 1998

By Jeanan Yasiri

It's a massive task - trying to understand how to better serve the multicultural consumers that are walking into your organization in record numbers. The good news is you're not alone. But, be certain, there is no blueprint that outlines the proper way to relate to various groups. When you reflect on the implications of the myriad of issues that surround diversity it's easy to conclude the best plan is to simply think back to the basics of good customer service and work on connecting with the individual.

The data are impressive. According to the Population Reference Bureau, people of color as a group now buy more than any of the countries with which the United States trades. African-Americans, Asians and Latinos alone (not including illegal aliens) are expected to account for 25 percent of the nation's consumer base by the year 2000. Today, the spending power of these groups is $424 billion and expected to increase to $650 billion by the year 2000.

It is only fair to recognize that we are not all realizing an equal distribution of multicultural consumers in our markets. According to census data, population shifts during the 1990's show continued geographic concentration of minority groups into specific regions and a handful of metro areas. Among the nation's 271 metro areas, Los Angeles is home to fully one-fifth of the nation's Hispanic population. It also ranks first in total growth, netting 18 percent of all Hispanic population gains in the U.S. between 1990 - 1996. Together, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco accounted for 39% of the nation's Asian population gains in the 1990's. Forty-three percent of all U.S. Asians, live in these three metro areas.1

But, just because the concentration of specific populations is substantial in many major metro areas, the fact is that many other parts of the country are experiencing considerable increases as welll (50% in Dane and Waukesha Counties in Wisconsin among Hispanics for Hispanics for instance) in the last few years. That means that the issue of relating to new cultures remains as real to that less sophisticated market as it is to inner city Los Angeles.

When considering multiculturism and diversity, some quickly conclude that the terms only refer to individuals from countries other than the United States. While country of origin can impact culture, the concept of serving in a multicultural environment really refers to the recognition that consumers will present different sets of needs, values and perceptions. Ethnicity, race, and language might influence an individual's culture, but by no means will all the consumers we work with who present multicultural challenges to us come from outside the U.S. Considerations of age, physical capabilities, lifestyles, education, family and economic status also are components that make up an individual's relation to their culture.

Regardless of the industry you represent, the same important point holds true for all of us: if we don't identify with our customer on a level with which they are comfortable, we have lost them. Further, if we are not comfortable being flexible enough to accommodate culture, we will lose much more than just that singular customer.

Think about the "average person" who walks through the door for service. They might appear familiar to us in their appearance or speech. But the fact is, we all know that individuals bring to their transaction experiences differing sets of expectations,. The challenge of serving the multicultural consumer is merely that of helping to identify expectations with which we might not immediately be familiar.

While it would be easier to conclude that women from North Africa prefer their service exchanges in a particular manner and men from Missouri in another, the largest challenge in successfully tackling the issue of multiculturalism is the simple recognition that consumers are individuals. Some behaviors and expectations will apply to groups, but to suggest to staff that categories of consumers will all prefer their service experience in a particular manner leads to dangerous stereotyping. Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions is that there is a single Latino or Hispanic "culture." In fact, Spanish speaking customers may be presenting from up to one of 37 different countries, including the United States. Each of those countries of origin would undoubtedly have contributed to the individual's unique life experience and culture.

As a point of reference - in regard to Spanish speaking cultures - overall Cubans represent the most affluent Hispanic subgroup, with a median household income almost $10,000 higher than that of Puerto Ricans. Some of that difference may be the result of Cuban-Americans' median age of almost forty years, which is higher than that of other Hispanics. Adding to the advantage is the fact that close to 20 percent of all Cubans over twenty-five years old have completed four years of college. That figure is compared to 10 percent of Puerto Ricans and six percent of Mexican-Americans.2 The bottom-line: socioeconomic and educational indicators will most definitely influence culture and perception of service.

Culture speaks more to an individual's life experience than anything else. So in providing service, the key is appreciating the patterns that have been developed through the consumer's life while always focusing on the individual. Find out the path that has led them to you and the set of expectations they have in receiving service from you. Truly, there is little difference between that and what successful service providers have found with their exchanges in environments where "culture" was never before a consideration.

"We try to identify up front whether someone will be familiar with our sales and service process or not and then tailor our process to their needs,' Mike Fitzgerald, Service Director for award winning Zimbrick of Madison's Buick Division. Zimbrick has received numerous national awards for provision of excellent service among automobile dealerships. Their personal approach to connecting the sales, service and post purchase education process is recognized throughout the auto industry.

"If we see that someone isn't familiar with our normal process, we have one person stay with them through the entire process of sales and service and even purchasing their next new vehicle. Even if they choose to move into a different brand of vehicle, that same company representative sticks with them. We establish a comfort baseline with those folks that helps them know who they can always turn to with questions or new needs," says Fitzgerald.

While Fitzgerald says this has worked extremely well for customers who are not as accustomed to purchasing and servicing vehicles, it has also helped employees recognize how they can provide better service to mainstream customers as well. "When you are thinking about everybody's individual needs you are more apt to pick up on the fact that someone needs some extra help. As an example, a lot of elderly women I work with aren't comfortable with the process of servicing their vehicle. It's intimidating to them. But, they are happy to have me come by their home and pick up their vehicle for them. We can do that because we are looking at what the individual needs."

Our culture might be influenced by a number of characteristics, some of which are identified in the following areas.

Communication Style

Is the customer demonstrating an interest in communicating verbally or not? Body language, relationships to others in the family group, even use of silence might all be points that communicate a meaning.

We all use different words, tones and expressions in our speech. Some of it has to do with our mood, intellect and comfort level as much as it has to do with culture. Help your staff become aware of the fact that an individual who chooses to speak loudly and stand physically close is not necessarily angry or agitated. The same holds true for the individual who is less assertive and requires prodding in order to understand their needs.

Use of gestures or expressions can also fall into question. Eye contact and facial expressions might convey one meaning to you and another to your customer. As an example, in mainstream America, many children are taught to address their teachers and authority figures by looking at them when they speak. The opposite holds true for individuals representing some Asian, Latin American and Native American cultures. What appears to be a sign of disrespect to some, might in fact be demonstrating the opposite.3

Similarly, a broad smile might convey warmth and generosity to many that you meet. However, in some cultures, smiling at a person you do not know can be considered false and pompous.

Also consider, if your organization is in the habit of sending promotional literature to customers, do you target all populations equally? Mainstream consumers in the U.S. are bombarded by direct mail campaigns but Hispanic audiences, for example, on average, receive only about 30 percent as many direct mail solicitations as general market consumers.4


Our use of and respect for the clock is different for all of us. Accepting that some cultures have a much more flexible concept of time is important. It is also important that staff recognize the difference in one person's fixation (or lack thereof) on the clock has nothing to do with productivity or "laziness" which is an unfortunate conclusion many people draw. Instead, it often has more to do with the importance some cultures place on social interaction. Work and social activity are all accomplished in the same day, however the pattern might be different from what you are accustomed to.

It's best to allow the customer to set the pace of the conversation. If the customer wants to spend time up front getting to know you, recognize that this is an important part of the transaction process. Certainly if you are working through an interpreter, recognize that the interview may take twice as long.

You might also be interested in how various groups including African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites choose to spend their leisure time. An excellent resource for this is the article, "Time and the Melting Pot" by John Robinson, Bart Landry and Ronica Rooks. It is published in the June 1998 issue of American Demographics.


What does the customer prefer to be called? Sir? By their first name? Mr. or Ms. So-and-So? In selling or marketing to ethics or minorities, it's generally a mistake to use a person's first name unless a relationship has already been established. Once a rapport has been established, first names may become preferable, but best to let the customer tell you that.

Individualism / Rank

Is the individualism's identity rooted in the "I" / self or "we" / group sensibility? Many Latin American and Asian cultures, to varying degrees, focus more on the importance of the group rather than the individual. In such cases, success on a given matter is often defined by the satisfaction realized by the family or the group as opposed to any personal feeling or gratification by an individual.5

In turn, the rank the individual holds in the family becomes key to their decision making authority and to their interest in involving others in a group decision. Differing cultures will place different weight on age, sex or rank in the group and the level of input the person should have in the ultimate decision. For instance, in many Latino and Asian cultures, the decision maker in a purchasing decision is the senior most ranking person by age. In these cultures, age represents acquired experience and knowledge and therefore the decision is best made by the individual(s) with those attributes. Change and innovation do not hold the same positive qualities as they represent unproven or undocumentable issues.6

A striking example of this in the health care industry is practice of Hmong patients in many cases including many family members in their physician appointments. In this Southeast Asian culture, it is not uncommon for several family members to be present for discussion of the diagnosis and treatment of the patient, sometimes with little input by the patient.7

The study of varying cultures and how to best service individuals who present from different groups is an ongoing task. Below are some key points to help staff in better understanding how to become more comfortable in serving the multicultural customer base we are all now enjoying:

1. Hire an interpreter when necessary.

If language is an issue, make certain that this barrier is tackled. If it is not possible to have an interpreter available on site, hire a service that provides the language you need by phone. There is no hope in connecting with someone if you are playing charades to try and get points across. Language is essential and your commitment to facilitating elimination of this barrier will speak leagues to your customer.

2. Communicate with sensible direction.

Even when interpreters are used, some staff resort to speaking loudly or elevating the tone of their voice thinking their points will be made clearer to the customer. Consider how embarrassing this is for everyone involved. Make sure staff are aware of this.

3. Smile if it makes you most comfortable.

As noted earlier, some cultures are not entirely comfortable with mainstream America's broad smile and firm handshake. However, if staff are most comfortable in greeting someone with a smile, don't stop them. The fact is that we are all representing different ways of being hospitable and our customers are coming to understand our intent is based in graciousness.

4. When you don't know, ask.

When part of the exchange becomes unfamiliar or uncomfortable - because you think that you might be stepping on some cultural norm - simply ask if proceeding in the manner you had planned would be appropriate. If you aren't sure how the customer would like to be addressed or how to pronounce their name, ask them. If you aren't sure who should be contacted in regard to a final decision, ask. This is a common courtesy that demonstrates your willingness to learn how to best communicate and serve your new customer.

5. Ask the person to explain the matter back to you.

If you aren't sure whether the individual understood or accepted the information as you presented it, ask them to explain key points of the discussion back to you. Even when working with an interpreter, this point can be most helpful. Some customers are afraid to admit they don't understand the points you are making. When handled tactfully, this method can help to generate more questions the customer might have and make certain the information is understood.

Another important consideration is to avoid saying "no." Many Americans answer questions with the simple word "no."' This word is negative and jarring to many consumers. Even if you cannot accommodate the request, try to present the information in such a way that appears less abrupt and incorporates an apology.8

6. Connect with community contacts that will help you better understand.

Particularly, if you are seeing a steady increase in a particular group of consumers, contact an appropriate community based organization that can better help you and your staff understand the general service expectations of this population. The information they can offer can be priceless. These organizations are also an excellent resource for focus group participants. Encourage employee volunteerism and connection with these agencies as opportunities become available.

7. Offer diversity training for staff.

Diversity education can help staff effectively interact with various consumers and value differences that impact purchasing decisions. Your intent is to create an inclusive environment that helps staff better understand their actions and resources in serving clients.

8. Have a resource contact for staff.

As you help your organization and staff learn the nuances of helping satisfy individual needs from different cultural perspectives, make sure there is an internal source of support for them.

"As we have served more Muslim and Jewish consumers, we noticed an increase in the number of calls we received asking questions about enzymes in our cheese," says Pat Lombardo, Consumer Affairs Manager for Sargento Foods, Inc. "These were consumers who were concerned about consuming pork. We've worked with staff to make sure they have the information and to help them become more comfortable in answering those types of questions when people call."

The stories that staff will present become excellent grounds for learning by all in an organization. Additionally, having someone to call and ask questions of demonstrates your organization's expectation of providing excellent service to all. It also provides staff with the necessary support in dealing with unfamiliar situations.

9. Make sure your workforce is reflective of your customer base.

Work closely with human resource staff to make sure that the faces and attitudes on your front line are reflective of the needs and expectations of your new and current customer base.

While we recognize the customers who are presenting for service represent various cultures, it is important to also recognize that our employee base represents an unprecedented range of diversity. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor and prepared by the Hudson Institute entitled Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century, people of color now make up one-third of all new workers hired. By the year 2000, African-Americans will account for 12 percent of the total workforce, Latinos will account for 10 percent and Asians, four percent. Thinking about connecting with our customers on a multicultural level will undoubtedly help us do the same with this rich new employee base as well.

The Culture of Poverty

For those who assume they are in business to serve only those who have, I challenge you to recognize those who have not. The fact is that many organizations have products or services that are needed by individuals living in poverty. They are a consumer base not to be dismissed or forgotten.

There is a very real culture of poverty that greatly impacts how these individuals receive information and conduct their service transactions. Being sensitive to this can better assist your organization in meeting the needs of this challenged population.

The fact is that individuals of low socioeconomic status have matters in their life that often take precedence over seemingly important matters like medical appointments, banking transactions, utility payments and such. If your organization or office structure is only run on tightly met schedules and bureaucratic policies, the likelihood is good that you will not connect with the customer who is living in poverty. Some of the reasons:

1. Lack of basic needs: This includes transportation, decent housing, good food and child care. If these basic needs are not met, it is difficult for the individual to recognize the necessity behind the need for addressing other matters. In the case of the health care industry, many people living in poverty address medical issues only when absolutely necessary. Helping the customer move from a "crisis oriented" frame of mind to one that helps them address issues earlier becomes the challenge.

2. Loss of control in their lives coupled with low self-esteem: Many families spend their lives moving from one resource agency to another. In many cases they are being given directives on what to do and when to do it and what will happen if they don't. Addressing an individual with the personal dignity they deserve will likely serve as a stark contrast to the rest of their world and help you both meet common goals.

3. Mistrust and fear of those in authority, including some service providers: Without the benefit of proper dialogue, some individuals will conclude that the exchange with your organization will be met with hostility or be punitive at best. Prove them wrong.

Greeting the customer who is challenged by poverty with the same respect, attention and dignity that any other customer receives will be a moment of truth for you both. It is how relationships are built and your community will come to know you as a true provider of service to all.


  1. The Diversity Myth, William H. Frey, American Demographics, June 1998.
  2. Multicultural Marketing, Marlene Rossman, 1994.
  3. Putting the Patient First: Up Front with Advocacy and Community Service, Bob Richards and Jeanan Yasiri, 1997.
  4. Multicultural Marketing, Marlene Rossman, 1994.
  5. Hispanic Market Handbook, M. Isabel Valdess and Marta Seoane, 1995.
  6. Multicultural Marketing, Marlene Rossman, 1994.
  7. Putting the Patient First: Up Front with Advocacy and Community Service, Bob Richards and Jeanan Yasiri, 1997.
  8. Multicultural Customer Service, Leslie Aguilar and Linda Stokes, 1996.