When it comes to making your customers feel like they belong with you, equality isn't always the goal. To be clear, there should be gender pay equity, people shouldn't be discriminated against or racially profiled while shopping or existing, and people shouldn't have a harder time getting a job if their parents don't have connections that can open doors for them.

However, there are times when treating all your customers the same may be detrimental to them. I did some research for a client a while back who had a product for people with diabetes. I asked a health care provider if she ever tailored her recommendations for her patients to their cultural backgrounds. She looked at me dumbfounded and asked, "Why would I ever treat my patients differently?"

What she didn't realize was that some of her diabetes patients with cultural backgrounds different from hers couldn't relate to her one-size-fits-all recommendation, particularly as it related to meals. As a result, they weren't taking action on her advice. Another physician I spoke with was tailoring her recommendations to her patients' cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. She would go as far as to alter meal plans to make them culturally relevant. As a result, her patients achieved higher outcomes and their overall health improved.

I did another study for a client in the hospitality industry to find out when travelers felt like they belonged when staying at a hotel, inn, or bed and breakfast. One woman responded that she felt seen and cared for when she stayed at a hotel that set aside three floors solely for women who were traveling alone. For added security, they adjusted it so you couldn't reach those floors via the elevator or stairwell without a keycard. 

Treating women solo travelers differently in this instance offered greater peace of mind and security for a group that is often vulnerable.

Treating customers differently can also help ease their burden.

Recently when my family traveled to Argentina, we were delighted when we were swiftly directed to the priority line for immigration at the airport, because we were traveling with a toddler. I was also swiftly ushered to the same priority line when I was pregnant a few years earlier. Argentina does not treat pregnant women, families with small children, or the elderly the same when it comes to lines -- whether it's at the airport, in the grocery store, or on the subway. Priority is always extended for those groups.

As a business leader, take the time to proactively identify when it is most appropriate to treat everyone the same, and when it is in the best interest of certain groups of your customers to treat them differently.

Besides, treating different groups of customers differently isn't new in the business world. Think about loyalty programs where customers who buy more get increased access, preferred seating, upgrades, and other priority benefits. People just get funny about it when it comes to treating people differently because of certain demographic characteristics.

We have to shed that aversion for the good of our customers.

Here are three steps to follow to help you identify when equality for all isn't the way to go.

1. Consider the identities of the people you're serving.

Don't just think about your ideal customers from the vantage point of the problem you help them solve. Consider the various types of identities those customers have. For instance, could your ideal customer be a pregnant woman, someone who is nursing a baby, or  someone with allergies? Perhaps they have a disability, a darker skin tone, practice a different religion, or are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

2. Proactively practice empathy.  

Take the time to walk a mile in your customers' shoes from the vantage point of the identities you noted. Develop a deep degree of intimacy with them by finding out how their experiences might be different or more challenging because of what makes them different from the masses.

Conversations, feedback, formal market research, and observations are all common ways to learn more about your customers' plight. Simulations can be helpful too. When I worked my corporate job, we made insulin pumps for people with diabetes. Those of us on the marketing team who didn't have diabetes spent a week wearing the product so we could understand what the experience was like for our customers.

3. Act on what you learn.

Build products, policies, and experiences that give people what they need -- on the basis of the aspects of their journey that make them different. Then institutionalize your decisions, so everyone on the team knows how and why certain groups get access to resources others may not. The reaction of your customers will demonstrate you've done the right thing.