Do you buy your own products and services? Even if you do: you’re probably not your (typical) customer. You can never assume that others experience the world, a piece of software, or a customer service interaction the same way you do.
Especially since the advent of globalization, almost every company sells its product or service to people who live nearby, as well as others who may live on the other side of the planet. Even if you only sell locally, some of your customers may have moved to your community from a different part of the world.
Your customer’s heritage will affect the way they relate to you, and it’s important to be aware of potential cultural differences while providing customer support. It’s this cultural awareness that helps the best customer support teams overcome their own cultural biases and untangle misunderstandings.
But intercultural awareness can also help you prevent burnout at work. When you know how different people approach customer care differently, it’s easier to step back from the interaction and not take things too personally.
To help with this, I’ve put together some findings on how customers from different cultures tend to think about support.
What Every Support Pro should Know about Intercultural Customer Care
1. On Language and Communication Style
People from various cultural backgrounds point to language barriers and misaligned expectations as the biggest challenges when dealing with a customer service agent from a different culture.
For example, in a study1 by Jackie L. Tam, Piyush Sharma, and Namwoon Kim, customers said that “sometimes when service employees realize there is a language barrier, they can become much less helpful as they would rather not bother serving you, as it is more hassle from them” and that they “are doing things according to their own script.”
Flexibly adapting your communication style, appearance, presentation style, and personalizing sales offers to your customer’s culture, results in higher customer satisfaction and commitment2. In other words, learn some of the languages your customers speak and adjust to their cultural norms or practices. It’s a great investment into building customer loyalty.
2. More Power to You?
In Belgium, France, Malaysia, and the Middle East, the customer tends to be the king. These cultures are characterized by a high power distance. Power distance refers to the degree of inequality which the population of a country considers normal. In high power distance countries, hierarchies are ubiquitous and people generally understand and accept “their place”. In contrast, countries with a low power distance share power more equally — leading to “flat” hierarchies and different terms of engagement.
If you’re from a high power distance culture, you’ll intuitively tend to treat the customer with the special respect they demand.
However, if you’re from a culture with a low power distance (such as the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or the UK), you’re more likely to experience conflicts with customers from high power distance cultures. They will expect to be treated like royalty, while your gut tells you to treat them at eye level.
These expectations shine through in people’s preference (or rejection) of formality. Belgian customers tend to expect a higher degree of formality than Dutch speakers from the Netherlands, for instance.
These customers can also affect the choice of job titles for customer support roles. Customers from the Middle East, for example, place a higher value on speaking with someone of the same rank as theirs — someone with authority — compared with European customers3. They may, therefore, respond more favorably to job titles like “Customer Support Executive” or “Customer Care Manager”.
Increasing the diversity of your team is a great way to balance your approach towards handling high and low power distance customers.
3. Are You Expected to be a Speedy Gonzales?
In customer support, ‘being fast’ is best practice. But what counts as a speedy response can differ across cultures.
Customers from North America4, the UK, and India have particularly high expectations when it comes to the speed of response. They’re also more likely to hang up the phone if the wait on the IVR or the time they’re put on hold is too long because they expect a quick acknowledgment of their issue.
On the other hand, they often don’t mind being put on hold while you take some time to investigate and solve the underlying issue.
In contrast, most European customers expect you to answer 80% of their queries off the top of your head5. Meanwhile, Japanese callers are usually happy to wait for the phone to be picked up — but they don’t like to be put on hold.
4. How ‘Long’ is a Long Pause?
Many teams are trained to avoid awkward silences on the phone and in live chat. That’s difficult for your team to get right because people hold different views on long silences.
For example, New Yorkers are quicker to perceive a pause in conversation as awkward, than non-New Yorkers. While Finns expect a long time to pass than Swedes before they feel that they could or should be talking6.
5. On Cultural Preferences and Improving Customer Service
Most companies improve their service bit by bit: some experiences may be outstanding, while others are mediocre at best, waiting to be improved when time and budget allow. This can lead to so-called mixed service experiences, where, for example, free and fast shipping is “mixed” with just one accepted payment method. When deciding how to focus your efforts to improve the service you provide, take a look at the cultural preferences of your main markets.
European and American customers respond more negatively to a mixed service experience online than Chinese customers do. In other words, delivering superior service quality online is a higher priority if you target mainly North American customers7.
6. How Do You Say ‘No’?
British customers expect service to be prompt, efficient and task-oriented with an emphasis on pragmatic solutions and common sense as well as reliability, authenticity and responsiveness. At the same time, they expect their privacy to be protected and don’t want to share very personal details in small talk.
They don’t like being told “no” directly, and verbal fights are unacceptable. It’s better to first show that you take the customer’s view seriously, and then gently suggest an alternative.
For example, let’s assume a customer is asking to change an order which was placed via their spouse’s account. Even though that’s not possible without explicit permission from the account owner, in such a scenario, it’s important to hear the customer out. Summarize their request and show them you understand their reasons for making the request. Then recommend an alternative resolution — for example, by asking the customer to call you with their spouse, or suggesting online self-service.
7. On Customer Complaints
Customers can be more inclined to complain in their native language than in a foreign language, even if they speak it well8. For example, if a customer’s native language allows them to be assertive yet polite at the same time, they may feel more at ease when expressing their disappointment with a product or service.
It’s important to be aware of this phenomenon as it could skew your complaint data, making customers in certain parts of the world seem happier than others.
8. On Written Communication
Intonation — pitch, pitch variation, rhythm, loudness, etc. differ between cultures, even if the language spoken seems the same. In written communication, punctuation or emojis often replace intonation in order to convey our attitudes and emotions.
This can make interactions emotionally loaded because these signals are essential for understanding how people mean what they say.
In his seminal book, Discourse Strategies9, John J Gumperz talks about how the servers who didn’t speak British English at a staff cafeteria at London Heathrow Airport, came across as “rude”.
Were those complaints discriminatory? Or was there something else going on?
Gumperz recorded the interactions between servers and customers on tape. When they all listened to the recordings together, they found that British and Asian staff used different intonation to ask if the customer wanted gravy. They all said exactly the same thing: “gravy”. But the British servers used question intonation (“gravy?”), whereas the Asian staff used a falling intonation (“gravy.”).
The falling intonation was interpreted as rude — ‘here’s some gravy, whether you want it or not.’
Gumperz also conducted research revealing that loudness can be a source of misunderstanding between speakers of British English and Indian English. In British English, loudness was often a sign of anger, while speakers of Indian English also used loudness simply to show that they’d like to say something.
While these examples center on two specific varieties of English, the underlying phenomenon is far more widespread. Such misunderstandings10 can occur between English speakers from the UK and eastern Europe, the United States and the UK, and German speakers from Germany and Austria — to name just a few.
9. On Well-oiled Machines
German and Austrian customers tend to expect objectivity and efficiency. Social scientist Geert Hofstede11 describes their service culture as “a well-oiled machine”. They usually focus on technical issues and don’t like conflict. However, they may enter into verbal fights to establish who’s right, and they’re likely to get passionate — which may come across as aggression to people from other backgrounds.
If the well-oiled machine metaphor makes you think of punctuality, efficiency, and reliability, you’re spot on. German and Austrian customers appreciate transparency, and they frown upon delays. 82% of Germans read the terms & conditions before making a purchase, and they often expect to pay by invoice — after they’ve received the product or service12.
Of course, none of these general trends changes the fact that everyone is different. We should never fall back on stereotypes and instead treat each customer as an individual.
However, I hope this list sparks some new thoughts about how you can best reach the hearts of all your customers, wherever they’re from. And perhaps it even helps explain some interesting variation you see in your analytics and customer feedback.
For more tips like this, check out the Giant Freshdesk Guide to Customer Support Etiquette.
1 – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262575146_Examining_the_role_of_attribution_and_intercultural_competence_in_intercultural_service_encounters
2 – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316595058_Impact_of_frontline_service_employees%27_acculturation_behaviors_on_customer_satisfaction_and_commitment_in_intercultural_service_encounters
3 – https://www.slideshare.net/pero93af/culture-and-customer-service
4 – http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20131106-lost-in-translation
5 – https://www.slideshare.net/pero93af/culture-and-customer-service
6 – https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5523ffe4e4b012b2c4ebd8fc/t/58b72eb7e4fcb55345892285/1488400058757/the+pragmatics+of+cross-cultural+communication.pdf
7 – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273312243_Differences_in_Customers%27_Online_Service_Satisfaction_Across_Cultures_The_Role_of_Thinking_Style
8 – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300039747_A_Study_of_Filipino_Complaints_in_English_and_Tagalog
9 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/discourse-strategies/46D4D801BCC1FF7E6E31B2A19E45E92B
10 – https://www.from-scratch.net/insights/7-misunderstandings-in-multilingual-customer-service
11 – https://www.slideshare.net/pero93af/culture-and-customer-service
12 – https://www.cmswire.com/customer-experience/how-cultural-differences-impact-customer-experience/