Cross-Cultural Customer Service

January, 2013

Great customer engagement is a product of a thorough understanding not only of the customer’s values and needs, but also of their culture.

“Hello, is that Mr. ?”


“Hello. My name is George, and…”

It is obvious from his accent that his name is not George but something far more ‘ethnically diverse’. A difficult conversation ensues.

There has been a backlash in recent years against outsourcing call center services to far-away lands, particularly because of conversations like this. The trouble here is that UK consumers don’t appreciate being lied to in the first sentence. But why does this happen? Because there has been a misreading of appropriate cultural emphasis; call center management has valued rapport (having a culturally similar name) over honesty (‘This is my real name and this is why I’m calling’).

Result: poor customer engagement.

Great customer service

Great customer engagement is a product of a thorough understanding not only of the customer’s values and needs, but also of their culture. To communicate effectively, speaking the language is not enough. You also need to ‘speak’ the culture. If cultural preferences are misunderstood or even disregarded, call centers risk offending or alienating the very customers they are trying to serve.

Research1 indicates that the roots of such misunderstandings fall into 4 main areas of cultural variance. Let’s look at each in turn, taking Japan as a particular example, where customer service is a highly developed artform.

  1. Power distance – the degree of social hierarchy a country considers normal.
    If a customer service representative (CSR) serving Japanese customers took the approach of one serving the Netherlands – that he is a colleague working alongside the customer to achieve a positive outcome – great offense may be taken. In Japan, the customer is king, and expects to be treated with great respect. CSRs must accept differences in status, even if it goes against their own cultural conditioning. Formalities like the greeting, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ are important and communicate respect. At the same time, the customer expects a sincere care for a positive outcome.
  2. Loyalty to the individual vs. loyalty to the group.
    In the UK, customers are likely to use phrases such as “What can you do for me?” or “I have a right to…”. In Japan, the emphasis is less on “I”, more on “we”. Customers want to do business with suppliers they can stick with for the long term. Demonstrating commitment to the long-term relationship is therefore key and the relationship begins with the sale. After-sales care is important to ensure the customer is happy with the product or service. CSRs should also demonstrate a commitment to the long-term health and reputation of the company they represent.
  3. Task-orientation (competition, achievement, assertiveness) vs. people-orientation (consensus, cooperation, quality of life).
    A CSR in the Netherlands may be inclined to treat customers equally, not giving preferential treatment to one customer over another. In Japan, the CSR is expected to bend over backwards to make things happen for the customer. Sincere apologies are expected for any problems or inconveniences, even if they were not the company’s fault. The customer expects a commitment to continuous improvement – uncovering the root cause of any failure and ensuring that it does not happen again.
  4. Uncertainty avoidance – the degree to which people need predictability and the extent to which they are willing to take risks.
    Trust is paramount to Japanese customers, and can be earned by CSRs having, or having immediate access to, extensive professional knowledge. Everything presented to the customer should have a perfect appearance, including any advice or personal interaction. CSRs must check and double check to avoid mistakes or quality problems. Every effort should be made to ensure a defect-free service delivery process with maximum consistency throughout. The same contact person should be maintained whenever possible to foster a sense of stability over time. Speed of reply is greatly valued no matter what the medium of contact. Deadlines and delivery dates are taken literally, so a CSR must take pains to be accurate and honest.

Cultural sensitivity can be the making or breaking of a customer service operation. Training in cultural awareness – ‘speaking’ the culture – is the key to getting it right.

1Research: Professor Geert Hofstede – see this wiki page.

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