Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Customer Service and Profiling

As a bored high school student, I decided to take a community college course at the nearby military base. It was called Patrol Procedure, where we learned how to be a cop. One of the things that struck me was we were taught racial profiling. We learned the Sesame Street lyric, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn't belong." I didn't think anything of it at the time. This must be what it's like being a cop.

Later I went off to college, bought a beat up muscle car (they were cheap then) and regularly visited the upscale middle class community of my parents. This community was known for their overly attentive police department. I got pulled over in my beat up muscle car a lot.

Officers would look at me, check my license with my parents address on it, and give me a warning for things like going around a corner too quickly. I always made sure my car was in good working order, to avoid getting pulled over, which was hard as a poor college student. I was being profiled based on my out of place car. One of these things is not like the other...

Racial profiling does not work in preventing crime. Let's get that straight. We know this now. You might think racial profiling works, but it's bad because it's a net that drags in every person of color. But that would be incorrect. There is no evidence racial profiling prevents crime. It's lazy policing that intimidates the local community. It certainly has no place in retail.

When I recently received a couple bad reviews because customers felt staff were overly attentive, racially profiling them, I had to wonder. Are my staff racially profiling? Maybe they think this is a form of loss control? You have to assume the worst first.

The assumption is yes, until it's proven otherwise. Our training entails a high degree of customer attention. Customers are greeted when they enter, approached when there's time to see if they need anything, and if possible, a follow up. Three points of contact. You'll likely get no points of contact at Wal-Mart, unless they've got a greeter at the door. It's shown if you greet someone, they're less likely to steal from the store.

Staff are also trained in loss control, but trained to a lesser degree. Ask how many have caught shoplifters and my guess is only the manager will raise his hand. The training is bad because we're bad at it. Where there's poor quality training, there's staff making stuff up, self training. That can be bad. In any case, where there's a negative perception, there is an opportunity for training.

This attention could also be benign. Customer service attention is not only unusual in the big box reality of todays retail, but it might be seen as profiling. Just as "courtesy can be mistaken for flirtation," you could say "service can be mistaken for profiling." Again, you want to give the customer the benefit of the doubt, and start from there. How can we provide a high level of service while making everyone comfortable?

I'm not sure we need to overhaul what we consider good customer service. I do think we need to be aware that our high level of service can be mistaken for profiling. That service might even be turned on to a higher level for people of color, which would be a mistake.

I have to admit in the past I've been overly enthusiastic when people of color (or women) showed interest in hobby games. I try to keep cool, but it's been like living in a California Zen monastery, with a sea of white dudes. That has thankfully changed significantly in the last decade, due to reasons both in and out of our control.

I think the solution to this profiling problem can be as simple as treating everyone with the same level of service, while being aware that people can be sensitive to that attention. The culture may have changed, especially for young people, whose retail perceptions are formed by brushing up against multinational retailers.

All of these things are just like the other. All of these things always belong.

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