Service at the risk of seeming racist

Lokes and I were shopping in Jaya Supermarket two days ago and I decided to go to Starbucks for a couple of lattes. In front of me were two middle-aged men who were browsing the chalkboard menus, looking a little lost. After a while, they reluctantly ordered two coffees.

The barrista, as usual, confirmed if they wanted the brews of the day. I could see from his eyes, and from the expressions on the faces of the two men, that the question was lost on them. Although clearly confused, the customers spoke to each other in their native tongues, and subsequently nodded to the barrista, who gave them a pregnant pause before keying in their orders. He may have wanted to make sure that the orders were right, by say, asking if the gentlemen knew that the coffees in Starbucks did not come with milk, as would kopi in a mamak shop. However, this could make them look a little stupid, assuming that the gentlemen were pidgin ignorant about ordering coffees in a place like Starbucks, where coffee meant black coffee and not plain kopi with milk. And the fact that the place was quite crowded made matters worse, as the two men had taken quite a bit of time deciding on their orders, while the queue started to snake towards the entrance.

In the end, the barrista decided not to say anything and to put the orders through. True enough, when the coffees came, the gentlemen expected milk. Indignant that it was the barrista’s fault for not informing them, the two gentlemen voiced their dissatisfaction noisily, saying that coffee was supposed to come with milk, and that it had always been, and will always be, as such, even after they were informed that could add milk or cream at the condiments counter.

“This isn’t the way things are done,” said the noisier party. “This is Malaysia, not America!” he proclaimed.

This reminded me of a standup comedy I once watched involving an African American comedian who was at a fast-food centre. As he was browsing the menu, the waiter, using his PDA, made a passing recommendation that the fried chicken was good that day. The comedian had looked up and asked if he looked like he wanted fried chicken. Obviously, the waiter had, using whatever data the POS system availed to him on the buying patterns of African Americans, plus what may he may have acquired from years of waiting on all kinds of customers, made a play on what he thought was good customer service to this very important celebrity. The comedian asked if he was being racist by assuming that all black Americans only ate fried chicken. Naturally, the waiter fumbled.

The question is this: as we embrace machines and artificial intelligence to tell us what the next customer who walks in would like based on his or her previous buying patterns, or the buying patterns of consumers that fit his/her demographics, would we be doing it at the risk of seeming pompous, or worse, racist? What if, when we look at all that sales data collected, that there are certain stereotypes that may help us do business better (say, stock more clothes of a certain range of colours or design or sizes if most of our customers are from only certain segments of society) but will ultimately offend our customers? When we cater to a niche market, we are in fact discriminating against, say, fat people, old people or people who smoke. If you see a fat gal walk into your store that caps the sizes at 12 (speaking from personal experience here hehe), wouldn’t you say it’s better to put a sign outside that says “sizes 8-12” so as not to waste her time, rather than let her come in (hopeful!), try on the clothes that don’t fit by a mile, and even risk having a few pieces destroyed in the process? But in employing this practical, service-oriented measure, aren’t you, in fact, discriminating?


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