Q:What are best practices for noting gender in utility customer accounts?

A:Call center representatives sometimes incorrectly assume a customer’s gender from their tone of voice, leading to confusion and poor customer service. We recommend that you train your customer representatives to remain gender-neutral in conversations with customers or to use the pronouns the customers prefer.

Stonewall, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) charity in the UK, provides some of the best resources we’re aware of for helping companies provide respectful and discrimination-free service to LGBT customers. The organization offers free publications regarding frontline service delivery.

Collecting gender and fraud verification

Stonewall’s publication “Getting It Right with Your Trans Service Users and Customers: How to Ensure Your Service Delivery or Customer Service Is Trans-Inclusive” provides helpful guidance for transgender-inclusive service delivery. The resource includes direct customer quotes that illustrate the weariness and frustration transgender people experience when they’re required to go to great lengths to prove who they are:

Generally speaking I have had a positive experience of services, however as a transgender woman with a deep voice, phone based services can at times be problematic.

It is not uncommon for me to be misgendered by service providers such as my bank, phone company, airlines etc. For the most part I understand where the confusion comes from, and a quick explanation from me that I am transgender is usually sufficient to allow us to move on. However there have been incidences where my bank has refused to believe that I was myself and forced me to go through lengthy additional security questions in order to prove my identity. As much as I try to remain pragmatic, it does dent my confidence and it can be wearing to be constantly reminded that the world doesn’t always see me as the woman I am. It would be nice if phone-based service providers could deliver a simple piece of training to instruct operators not to base identity by their expectations of someone’s voice.

—Hannah

To better serve customers such as Hannah, call center reps should not assume gender based on tone of voice. Utilities should train staff to use gender-neutral language and refer to the customer by name rather than gendered pronouns like sir or ma’am.

Utilities should train staff to use gender-neutral language and refer to the customer by name rather than gendered pronouns like sir or ma’am.

Stonewall also advises considering whether gender is even necessary to collect within your customer service center. Because gender isn’t integral to providing customers with electric service, utilities should consider using alternate ways to check for fraud beyond matching customer voice to the gender on file.

If you deem gender a necessary piece of information to include in customer accounts, you should allow customers to self-identify with an open-ended option beyond choosing male or female. It’s also important to allow customers to designate their preferred title.

Financial services company HSBC has implemented this practice, according to the article Mr, Mrs, Mx or Misc? Banking Giant HSBC Introduces Gender Neutral Titles. When registering for an account, customers can choose from 10 gender-neutral titles (Mx, Ind, M, Mre, Msr, Myr, Pr, Sai, Ser, and Misc), and these titles will appear on bank cards and in correspondence from the company. Existing customers can also change their titles.

ID requirements

If identification is necessary for service, utilities should allow a variety of identification options such as a driver’s license or passport. Stonewall notes that “many trans people do not want to or cannot change their legal gender, so requiring them to supply a birth certificate may present a barrier to them accessing your service or product.”

Name changes

Stonewall provides the following guidance for addressing name changes (for instance, if a customer calls to change their name after transitioning). Note that legal implications below refer to UK laws.

Customers and service users should have the ability to change details about their name or gender on your systems at any time in order for them to contain correct and up-to-date information. Members of staff who use these systems should be made aware of this and be trained to do so sensitively and without asking unnecessary or personal questions. People should be able to change their information efficiently and sensitively.

Staff who deal with these changes should be informed that:

  • A person does not need to hold a gender recognition certificate in order to change this information (it is also a criminal offence to disclose someone’s gender history if they hold a gender recognition certificate)
  • A person wishing to change this information should be treated with respect like any other customer updating their details
  • A person wishing to change this information may feel hesitant in changing it, so customer service and sensitivity is of the upmost importance when carrying out the process
  • Customer service staff should not ask personal questions during the process and remember their professional role in the transaction

The UK Equalities Office also released guidance on trans-inclusive service in its report Providing Services for Transgender Customers (PDF), which directly addresses name changes:

A transgender person may wish to be referred to by a different name and pronoun and require their gender marker to be changed on documents and systems.

The vast majority of documentation can and should be changed upon request as it simply enables you to identify a particular individual within your setting and has no other ramifications. In many instances it is not even necessary to see a formal name change document.

LGBT inclusivity practices

Stonewall advises covering five key areas when training staff to be inclusive:

  • Organisational policy and procedures where gender information is collected
  • How to avoid making assumptions about gender in different mediums of communication
  • How to use gender-neutral pronouns
  • Examples of transphobia and equipping members of staff on how to deal with it
  • The business benefits of trans-inclusive service delivery and customer service

Step 3 of Stonewall’s four-step “Service Delivery Toolkit” provides in-depth advice on training frontline staff to serve your LGBT customers. “Step 3: Training Frontline Staff” advises organizations to start by evaluating the training needs of their staff, including identifying any areas of service that may negatively affect their LGBT customers.

The key areas Stonewall recommends including in trainings are:

  • Organizational policy and relevant legislation: values of the service, staff expectations, and legal obligations
  • The needs of your LGBT customers: barriers and inequalities in your specific services, data trends, and customer feedback
  • Sector context: relevant research and guidelines relating to LGBT customers in your service territory
  • Terminology, stereotypes, and assumptions: appropriate and inappropriate language to use when talking about LGBT identities
  • Internal and external services: when and how to refer customers to LGBT-specific offerings
  • Challenging inappropriate behavior: whether from customer to customer, staff member to customer, or customer to staff member
  • Reporting procedures: how to formally report homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying and harassment

Contributing Authors

Analyst, Customer Engagement Solutions

Lisa Schulte is a research analyst for the customer experience (CX) team at E Source. With a background in market research and customer insights,...