A Hidden Service Blocker: Unconscious Bias

This article is about something that affects the quality of service delivery.

It is evident in many companies.

It’s rarely spoken about.But it can have really negative consequences.

It’s called unconscious bias.

Let me explain.

I was on a flight.

The plane was full.

As to be expected in this global world, there were people of different races on the plane – Caucasian, Asian, Middle Eastern and African.

I sat next to a person of African descent who, from a young age, had been living in Sweden. His name was Robert.

We had a few initial polite words, and then quickly developed a rapport.

We had a chat during the course of the flight. We got to know each other. We spoke about family, what we did, and our views on life. His passion is music, and he explained how he wanted to make a career in this industry. My conversation with Robert helped make the flight go faster.

But then something happened that bothered me.

The member of the cabin crew who served our meals behaved in a way that I am sure she was not aware of.

There were subtle differences in her manner towards me and towards Robert. She was friendly to me. She smiled, both with her mouth and with her eyes.

But, within the space of just a few seconds, her demeanour towards Robert, the person sitting next to me, was different.

Her tone and manner towards Robert were serious. Gone was the friendly person that I had experienced just a few seconds ago. It was almost stern.

I felt bad for Robert. But I didn’t talk to him about it. I am pretty sure that this was a part of the world that he lived in.

This was a case of what is called “unconscious bias”.

The cabin crew member was unaware of the difference in her behaviour towards Robert and me. She had automatically made a judgement about Robert.

Our unconscious biases are influenced by factors including our past experience and background. They are triggered by differences between other people and ourselves, such as colour of skin, race, accent, physical appearance, social status, religion of other people.

The cabin crew member’s unconscious bias led to Robert and me having totally different service experiences.

There was an experiment that is shown on YouTube. Two scenes in a busy public place, with lots of people passing by.

Scene 1: The actor is lying on the pavement, seemingly in distress, continually saying, “Help me, help me.” Nobody came to help him.

Scene 2: The same actor is dressed in business clothing, seemingly in distress, saying, “Help me, help me.” Nobody came to help him. People immediately flocked around to help him.

So, what has this got to do with the wider world of the customer experience?


Service staff around the world everyday instinctively behave differently towards different types of customers. This can be reflected in terms of the human experience that they deliver. Or it might be felt through their willingness to help, to make approvals, accept complaints…and the list goes on.

Unconscious bias in customer service can cost companies money.

I was running a customer service workshop in Australia some years ago. A very well educated and senior public sector employee told me a story. She is part-Aboriginal. She went into a car dealership willing and ready to buy a Honda Accord. It took a long time for someone to come to assist her – and when someone did, it was a junior person. She said to me, “They ignored me. They thought that an Aboriginal woman like me could not afford to buy a Honda Accord”.

She went to another car dealership where she had a better service experience. She was treated with respect, just as any customer would expect. She bought the car. And, she decided that she would not get mad with the first dealership. She sent that car dealership a cancelled cheque, made out for the amount of the new Honda Accord. It came with a note, saying, “This is what your company missed out on…”

The message is simple – unconscious bias in service delivery comes naturally and spontaneously. It can cost companies a lot of money in lost sales, as well as resulting negative impacts on brand reputation. Emotional and negative social media stories have a habit of going viral!

The customer in front of me has feelings – just like me. She has a family – just like me. She wants to be valued – just like me. She wants to be treated with respect – just like me.

As service leaders, we need to make customer service employees aware of their potential unconscious biases. Develop a way of thinking of “just like me”, where service employees focus on the similarities between customers and themselves, rather than the differences.

Until next time.