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Study Suggests Internet/Social Media Customer Service Discriminates Against The Poor, and Rural Residents

Discrimination comes in many forms, and often it happens, not as a result of intent to discriminate, but as a byproduct of other actions. Systemic discrimination occurs when barriers are set in place that often, unintentionally affect a particular group -- unintended consequences, if you will.

Such is the case with the move to use social media to provide customer services and support.

Twenty Percent of Canadian Households Lack Internet Connectivity

In a recent study (2010 data) described by the CBC (here), results indicate that 20% of Canadian households have no Internet connections in their homes. That's a bit surprising given that Canada tends to rank as one of the highest users of Internet services. Only 3% of "highest income households" indicated they lacked Internet access.

What is of more concern is that the study suggests that there is a tendency for those in the lowest earning categories to make up an inordinate number of those without home Internet access. While the results are based on a survey of 30,000 households, and survey results on some topics are often questionable, the results are likely accurate since these types of questions tend to be answered "realistically".

As a side issue, respondents without access were also asked why they didn't have home access. Cost of service was cited by 20% of households, while 56% indicated it was due to "lack of interest".

It should be noted that survey research that asks asks respondents for reasons underlying actions and behavior is notoriously poor at getting accurate results, since, for psychological reasons, human beings are not terribly good at explaining the thinking that underlies their decisions. (See How We Decide).

Implications For Customer Service

There is certainly no incentive for businesses and other organizations to make it more difficult for any customers to contact them, but the reality is that there are still systemic barriers that discriminate against those that do not have EASY and CONVENIENT access to Internet based customer service, so long as certain segments of the population lack connectivity.

If companies use the Internet and social media as ADDITIONAL contact channels, the effects are probably not very significant, particularly when more traditional channels are still preferred by most customers (phone, for example).

However, that's not what most companies are doing. Because of basic economics and corporate attitudes that see customer service as overhead, companies are not improving their existing channels, but spreading the same customer service resources over more channels. Companies perceive social media support channels as cheaper to run.

It's been noted by more than a few people that social media complaints get responses more quickly than those made by phone, and that the most commonly used existing system -- phone trees, is so abysmal and frustrating, that customers expect and receive terrible support.

It's clear that companies are NOT improving their customer service practices before moving to social media, in the hope that by using social media channels, customer service delivery costs can be lowered, and the cost of other traditional channels can be reduced.

The bottom line is this: If your company hopes to MOVE customers to social media as a means of reducing support costs associated with more traditional methods, consider that by doing so, you will make it MORE difficult, and less convenient for customers of lower income, and located in rural areas, to contact and interact with you.

Can your company live with that? Does creating systemic barriers for certain groups have business/revenue impact for you company? Are you comfortable on an ethical level, with creating systemic barriers to contact? Only you can decide, but it's worth thinking about.

Sidebar: Aboriginal People and Customer Service

Systemic barriers as explained in the main body of this article may not seem of great concern, even on an ethical level, but when you translate them into disparate impact on a particular cultural or heritage-defined group, the "game" changes.

In Canada, at least one such group gets hit by a double whammy. Aboriginal people tend to fall into lower income brackets and are often located in rural areas of Canada, sometimes in communities that lack basic transportation to larger centers. As and if companies reduce use of traditional customer service methods, and so long as access is limited for the poor and those in rural communities, the move to social media discriminates, albeit unintentionally, against Aboriginal people.

Similar scenarios exist in the USA for Aboriginal people, but also for those in other groups that, by virtue of history, make less money.

Something to think about. Is there potential for EEOC complaints alleging discrimination? Who knows? Again, something to consider.

About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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