Subtle sexism can ruin your customer service

    Finishing a political conference I was attending in Washington, D.C., my husband and I prepared to check out of the famous and expensive hotel. Striding confidently to the ornate wood cashier’s counter, I requested the statement from the haughty uniformed desk clerk. He printed it off the computer and pushed it toward my husband.
   I retrieved it, reviewed it, and handed the clerk my credit card. He prepared the bill and pushed it again toward my husband. Once again, I grabbed it, signed it, and waited for the copy. He put it on the counter in front of my husband.
   I snatched it off the counter, shoved it in my purse, and walked toward the rental car silently fuming, and wishing I’d had the appropriate words for his unconsciously sexist behavior. Many workers in service and sales industries, both male and female, have no idea they can be offending customers by doing something that’s second nature to them.
   Women make an awful lot of shopping decisions. My small-business clients frequently tell me that the woman of the household generally has the deciding vote on which car a family will buy, who will paint their house, where they will eat out, and what furniture they want. They can also be successful business owners and manage budgets and have their own credit. They are valuable customers and can be easily annoyed by 2nd-class treatment. Don’t make mistakes.
   Here are some tips I teach for handling this touchy issue.
   Don’t assume anything. Unless you know who’s paying, put the bill in the middle, or ask. Food servers can make or break a tip by not paying attention to this. A wise customer will try to avoid embarrassment all the way around by letting the server know upfront who will be paying. When a car dealer or home contractor focuses all of his attention on my husband, I am much less likely to buy from that company.
   Respect the final decision maker. After telling an insurance agent exactly what I needed for business insurance, he lost the deal by asking if I needed to ask my husband about anything before I signed the papers. I had a new agent within a half-hour. Business owners don’t have time to explain their authority to you. This has also happened to me buying a car.
   Watch your phone behaviors. Do not assume any woman who answers the phone must be the secretary or office manager. It just might be the owner. Be polite to anyone and everyone who picks up the phone.
   Monitor your remarks. A female comes to repair your plumbing, or drives a delivery truck, or fixes your phone system. It is not necessary to comment on the fact that she’s in a traditionally male industry. In fact, she’s probably pretty tired of hearing about it.
   Be open-minded about appearances. Because I was wearing a skirt instead of my usual chef jacket , I was once dismissed as a waitress by two gentlemen wanting to sell me something at my restaurant. When they found out I was the owner, they had already blown the chance to make their pitch. (This also happens frequently to young, or young-looking business owners — not just women.)
   Be a "humanist." Free yourself of the stereotypes of gender.
   Be aware of your biases. Evaluate your hiring practices.
   Do you consistently hire or promote one gender assuming they can do particular jobs better?
   Let people’s skills speak for themselves. I’ve worked for companies that paid men more because it was assumed they were the main income earner, or that they somehow had more going for them.
   This is not only sexist, but will get you sued, as well.

Taimi Dunn Gorman is the owner of Gorman Publicity and a founder of the Colophon Café and Doggie Diner. She teaches seminars in marketing for small businesses at WCC and has worked in small business and marketing for over 30 years.

Related Stories