–Guest post by Julie Slagter with David Livermore
If you have culturally diverse customers (and hopefully you do), consider adding the following to your customer service training manual: “Don’t treat customers the way you want to be treated”. This may break the golden rule of customer service, but applying it may help improve your customer satisfaction ratings.
Small talk may be considered a waste of time to some task-oriented cultures and endearing to others. Friday might seem like a great time to suggest a phone meeting for some but not for a customer whose weekend includes Friday (e.g. most Middle Eastern cultures). Given the variety of customer preferences, it might be dangerous to ever assume a customer wants the same thing you do; but it’s especially dangerous when the customer comes from a different culture. Here are four tips to begin thinking about culturally intelligent customer service:
1. Adapt Your Communication Style. “Good” communication differs depending upon the customer.
- When emailing, respect cultural differences in relation to how you address people (e.g. “Mr.” versus “John”) and refrain from using slang or abbreviations. It’s best to start more formal.
- Sometimes it’s the little things that set your customer service apart. For example, changing the way you write the date for various contexts (20 March or March 20) or referencing something specific about the customer’s context (e.g. Chinese New Year, a recent election, etc.) can demonstrate your not just communicating robotically.
- Proof your marketing materials extra carefully and consider what particular photos or colors might communicate to other cultures (e.g. White symbolizes “clean and pure” in the Anglo cultural cluster and “death and mourning” in the Confucian Asian cultural cluster).
- Use humor cautiously and avoid sarcasm.
- If your customer’s primary language is different than yours, slow down your rate of speech, clearly articulate your words, and pause frequently to allow space for the other person to process the conversation or ask for clarification.
- Determine whether a customer wants you to “get to the point quickly” or prefers more details.
2. Don’t Take it Personally. Remaining neutral and optimistic when a customer is upset is not an easy task. But assessing the situation through the lens of cultural intelligence can help. For example:
- Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly when a customer appears upset. The reaction could be cultural (e.g. Some individuals have been socialized to raise their voice in order to be heard but it might not mean they’re upset with you).
- Some cultures teach the importance of saying “Thank you” after you’re served. Others suggest it’s an insult to say “Thank you” to someone who expects to serve you.
- Some individuals are trying to “go over your head” when asking to speak to a manager. Others come from a culture where it’s assumed you would prefer to defer this to someone more senior.
At some point you may determine that a customer is just being rude; but it’s important to start with considering whether it may simply be a cultural difference. Take a deep breath and think about how culture might be influencing the interaction with the customer.
3. Resolve Conflicts Creatively. Cultural intelligence will also help resolve conflicts more creatively.
Take the following situation for example: Two of your customers aren’t happy with one of your products and you have a no-refund policy. John, a New York City native, demands a full refund and won’t take no for an answer. Sanjay, born and raised in Mumbai, continues to give you a lengthy explanation about the crisis his family has just experienced since he initially placed the order. Based on these cultural differences, how might you handle these two customer complaints?
- Listen actively with appreciation and tact. Acknowledge their point of view and ask constructive questions to help you better understand their perspective.
- Learn how to express empathy for various cultural contexts. Some simply want to be heard. “I’m sorry” or “I understand” will go a long way with them. Others want some kind of action, even if you can’t offer a full refund. Read some of the important findings from this study that looked at how call service employees in Singapore expressed empathy across cultures.
- John needs a confident response referring him to the terms and conditions he agreed to. However, Sanjay needs some affirmation that terms and conditions don’t always account for circumstances like his. See if you can offer any flexibility and even if you can’t, acknowledging that this is an unfortunate situation can help defuse the conflict.
4. Don’t be too quick to Adjust. All these suggestions can be dangerous if used without cultural intelligence because you end up assuming all New Yorkers or Indians want to be served the same way. It’s a delicate balance. You want to acknowledge that Friday might be a bad day for someone in Dubai to do a conference call but you also don’t want to imply that everyone in the UAE is a practicing Muslim. Likewise, wishing someone a happy Chinese New Year can be a “small thing” that makes a difference; but it can also seem patronizing.
Improve your cultural intelligence and use your increased understanding about cultural differences as your hypothesis for how a customer is likely to respond. But be ready to adjust your approach when you receive cues that suggest you should go a different direction.
As you adjust your assumptions and responses to various customers, you create a better customer experience. Don’t assume your customers want to be treated like you do. Find ways to approach each customer with cultural intelligence and simultaneously enrich your own fulfillment by encountering the vast world of differences at your reach.