Why We Don't Assume Pronouns in Customer Support

As a company we rarely write about things we do internally.

To us they seem like totally normal things to do. I guess we kinda assume nobody's interested in regular things.

That is until someone outside the company turns around and says "Really? You do that?" or "You should write about that". I jot down ideas and quickly forget about them. They never see the light of day.

But last night at 1am I sprung from my pillow after half dozing off. I grabbed for my phone and wasn't letting this idea get away from the blog: do other companies gender their customers?

The horror. Surely not. Wait. Maybe the do?

To us pronouns and the gender spectrum are important things. With two non-binary co-founders we're all careful about how to refer to people and we all know you can't gender someone based on a name or how they present.

The more I think about it in everyday life the more I think we're an outlier.

I'd love to view this apartment. Sure Mr Isted. The delivery driver was great. Was he? The receptionist was nice. Was she? 🙄

Gendering is so ingrained in our society people do it without even thinking about it. And I hate it. We hate it.

Companies even market products based on gender. Even Google Analytics has a (somewhat terrifying) breakdown of demographics with gender. Luckily there's hope for us all.

According to a survey by GLAAD 12% of Millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. That's a pretty hefty chunk of people you might be offending without realizing it.

A graph showing % of people who identify as LGBTQ by age group. 18-34 20%, 35-51 12%, 52-71 7%, 72+ 5%

And you shouldn't need a gender neutral name to not be assigned a gender.

We ask for pronouns in our hiring process where many companies don't. We avoid pronouns in internal messages about customers. We display our pronouns on our about page.

A chat message reading: "@jake can we get John's credit card updated?"

This isn't a flex but something I wish every company would do.

I've no doubt been referred to "he" inside internal customer support interactions and the thought makes me angry and upset.

I'd hate to offend our customers in a similar way.

Not sure about pronouns and why they're important? This video will help 👆

Changing Internal Communication Culture

When we started HelpDocs both of us identified as cisgender and I'm sad to say we did gender customers unnecessarily. We were ignorant.

We hadn't had much education on gender identity and pronouns. It's fair to say many people still haven't so I totally understand the confusion people have when we mention our pronouns they/them.

It challenges our written and spoken communication. Our society defaults like "Dear Ladies & Gentlemen" or "Thanks to the Men & Women..." suddenly all seem outdated.

This example from Rand is the right way to educate yourself

The truth is there's a lot of people out there who may not directly mention their pronouns—especially in support emails. So why gender them when you don't need to?

When a new team member comes onboard we make sure to educate them on talking about customers internally and externally. Just write their name again and avoid pronouns altogether (preferred) or default to they.

Gemma needs a little help setting up her account.
Gemma needs a little help setting up an account.
Gemma needs a little help setting up their account.

When a team member gets it wrong we point it out directly. Did this person need to be gendered? Do you know the pronouns of this person? This can be helpful in keeping gender out of customer support by default.

Keeping Pronoun Assumption Out of Customer Support

The worst first sign of a company who hasn't thought about gender identity is the signup process and salutation or gender dropdowns.

I'm not the only one with 59% of Gen-Zers agreeing that forms or online profiles that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than “man” or “woman".

Every time I see a salutation or gender dropdown in English I know exactly what's coming.

Are you a Mr or Mrs? This makes it extremely difficult as a non-binary person to sign up to something knowing that gender will be assumed for me. All communication will be sent using that salutation. Unfortunately I'm yet to see Mx as an option.

I honestly don't understand the use of this information. Does it matter? Will the email onboarding be different depending on my choice? I sure hope not.

Of course this assuming all communication is in English.

I'm starting my journey of learning Portuguese and totally understand the difficulty in avoiding gender in certain languages. Unfortunately I don't have any expertise in this but I hope this resource from nonbinary.wiki helps.

Making Inclusive Support a Priority Inside Your Company

Changing behavior is difficult and pushing to become a more inclusive company for your team and customers isn't easy. But I think it's worth doing if you want to make every customer feel comfortable to get in touch with support or sign up to your service.

To me it's the support version of developers building accessible features.

Did anyone think about making their websites or applications accessible 10 or even 5 years ago? I don't remember them doing so. Now it's becoming a staple of building new features (as it should) and although it takes more time and consideration it sure is worth doing.

As a support person it's time to consider whether customers have explicitly shared their pronouns with you or respect ones in their email signature.

I'd love to see more companies making an effort to avoid gendering customers without thought.