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The future customer experience will be inclusive

By Tori Sepand and Delphine Jacquin
team of three working at slalom

The US has never been as diverse as it is today. Forty-eight percent of Gen Z, the population born between 1997 and 2012, are non-white; one in four adults in America has a disability; and the LGBTQ+ community nears 8% of the US population. The stereotypical view of the “average American” needs to be expanded. Soon, inclusive customer experiences for brands will no longer be a nice-to-have, but an imperative. The notion of inclusiveness will become an inherent part of the experience.

In this article, we explore the concept of inclusive customer experience (CX); why it’s imperative for brands to adapt from an ethical, demographic, and economic standpoint; and how to get started on an inclusive CX journey.

What is inclusive customer experience?

Building experiences with an inclusive first lens means that you deeply consider the needs of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), customers with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community when researching, designing, and launching your product, service, or initiative. It also means that you assess and evaluate your decisions at every stage to determine who you are intentionally or unintentionally excluding. The goal is for customers of various backgrounds to feel welcomed, included, and respected. Your experience should feel like it is meant for these customer segments by acknowledging and reflecting their needs to them throughout their journey.

If we agree with this definition, we should also agree that an inclusive customer experience should be the norm, not the exception. Several brands have already taken steps. Tommy Hilfiger created an accessible clothing line. Telfar has taken a gender-neutral approach to their clothing since its inception in 2005. Pinterest tools allow users to filter search results by skin-tone shade or hair-curl type. Sephora offers search parameters by personal characteristics when looking at reviews. Overall, an inclusive customer experience can yield long-term benefits for the company. For instance, Fenty Beauty brought in $100 million within the first 40 days of its launch in 2017 after being the first beauty brand to promote a shade-inclusive line. Forbes now estimates Fenty Beauty to be worth $2.8 billion.

The growing gap between customer experience and expectations

However, the majority of brands are only at the onset of their journey. BIPOC, customers with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community still report feeling unwelcome, often disrespected, and deprioritized by brands and organizations. According to the Racial Bias in Retail study, two out of five shoppers report experiencing discrimination based on their race or skin color. This includes being followed by staff, ignored, denied discounts, and mistaken for sales associates. Sixty-five percent of consumers with disabilities face limited choices due to various barriers when it comes to buying their daily needs.

Most teams defining a customer, brand, or product strategy do not have a goal to intentionally exclude anyone from participating in their experience. But the outcome is still the same and the impact is often a substantial range of customers not feeling welcomed, a brand losing customer loyalty and trust, or the challenge of acquiring new customers. While change is a human-centered, inclusive imperative, a bad experience also has financial ramifications.

What this means for brands

Because customer experience and business outcomes are intertwined, the lack of an inclusive experience can have detrimental, long-term effects on the health of a business. This poses a problem today and will even more so tomorrow.

Businesses miss opportunities to target populations with substantial purchasing power. In 2021, Nielsen reported LGTBQ+ households have amassed $69.4B in buying power. Similarly, Hispanic, Asian, Black, and Native American consumers’ buying power has grown to $2T, $1.3T, $1.6T, and $153B, respectively, as of 2021. This pattern will accelerate soon since researchers predict Gen Z and millennials share of retail spend to grow to 48% by 2030. This is 16% more than today.

The lack of inclusive experience also risks alienating a broader population. Gen Zers demonstrate a noticeable solidarity with communities experiencing discrimination. A 2020–21 study by Quantilope found that diversity and inclusion were important to 76% of Gen Zers and 72% of millennials, compared to just 46% of boomers. Younger adults are more accepting of everyone’s unique identity. For instance, 65% of Gen Zers believe that brands should provide the option to search for gender-neutral clothing, according to the UNiDAYS Fashion Report of 2022. Not adapting to these trends means that brands will miss out on opportunities to acquire new customers and retain existing ones.

Gen Zers have opened the door to a form of business where ethics prevail. Brands have no choice but to adapt.

Seizing the day

We celebrate this opportunity for change because inclusiveness is where customer trust, brand values, and ethical commerce meet. But where to start?

Author Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” claims that if we build our efforts around people whose identities often sit at the margins and whose needs are frequently excluded, we will ultimately ensure more community members’ needs get met. If we apply similar thinking to customer experience, it gives us a lens to better consider whose needs we meet and serve within our experiences.

Integrating this tenet into the way brands design their customer experience is a good starting point. The objective is not to re-create how a brand develops its customer strategy. Knowing customers through research and a continuous feedback loop, understanding where the business stands relative to internal and external factors as well as the competition, and having a strong vision and value proposition supported by a clear strategy and an actionable roadmap are all components that still apply.

The notion of inclusion should permeate every step of that process and result in an inclusive customer journey. But you may want to question or challenge your customer experience approach:

  • Are there gaps in the experience between your existing personas and a customer with disability, a member of the BIPOC community, or someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?
  • Is inclusivity an integral part of the customer vision and strategy?
  • When building a product, are there any requirements that our team typically deprioritizes that would significantly improve the experience for these underserved groups?

What inclusive CX feels like

This intentional thinking is what helps customers feel welcomed by the brand experience because it embeds the signals they need to discover, identify, evaluate, and trust that the brand is meant for them. For example, it wasn’t until TikToker Golloria George tried Fenty Beauty that she felt “beautiful…[and] so seen” because not only had Fenty designed a foundation that matched her darker skin tone, but the entire makeup line had shades for her. When we evaluate Fenty for their inclusivity and explicit signals to customers that these products will work for them, we see the intentionality from the product shades to the range of models included in the marketing, and the ability to evaluate product reviews sorted by skin tone, age, and other characteristics.

Signals need to be approached holistically, not just as journey touchpoints. Customers across BIPOC, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community care deeply about spending their money with brands that reflect their values. They are looking not only for signals that a brand can meet their needs, but also for brands to support their communities and causes. In a 2022 Edelman study on Gen Z brand trust, they reported that “when brands take a stand on human rights, climate, gender equity or racial justice, there is a 4-to-1 higher likelihood of purchase.”

Focusing your CX strategy on inclusive customer experience is likely to improve brand perception, strengthen customer loyalty, and ultimately increase wallet share — all core performance metrics that brands track to measure success.

Wrapping up

This work isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. There’s no easy way out, but it’s the future. As you can see from the data and insights we have shared, future generations are looking for brands to reflect their values not only in marketing campaigns but within the products and services themselves.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how intrinsically interconnected these external inclusive experiences are to your company’s internal diversity and inclusion initiatives. An ability to hire and retain a diverse workforce helps prioritize the right cultural connections and avoid cultural missteps when engaging with customers.

Slalom’s approach to customer strategy always begins with understanding our customers and their needs. While the approach to building inclusive customer experiences is no different, this work pushes us to look beyond our own worldviews and prioritize people’s needs that might look different from our own.

This blog post was originally published here.

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