Don't treat your customers the way you want to be treated

Mar 24 2014 by David Livermore Print This Article

If you have culturally diverse customers (and you probably do), add the following to your customer service training: "Don't treat customers the way you want to be treated". Why? Because the very things that boost customer satisfaction and trust in one culture can be the very things that destroy it in another.

Small talk with customer service reps is considered a waste of time in some task-oriented cultures (and with task-oriented individuals, irrespective of culture!) yet it is essential to others. Friday might seem like a great time to suggest a phone meeting for some, but not for a client whose weekend includes Friday (i.e. most Middle Eastern cultures).

Given the variety of customer preferences, it's 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. Don't communicate robotically

Most customers are annoyed if they receive a "cut and paste" response. With every email seemingly starting with "I hope you're well", you need to move beyond these robotic statements to make your customer service stand out. But how you adapt should vary depending on the cultural background of 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 your communications formally.
  • Referencing something about the customer's context (e.g. Chinese New Year, or a recent election) or addressing a Japanese customer by saying Fuji-san rather than Mr. Fuji immediately sends a message that you're in tune with them.
  • Proof your marketing materials extra carefully and consider what particular photos or colors might communicate to other cultures. For example, while the color white symbolizes "clean and pure" in the Anglo cultural cluster, it suggests "death and mourning" in the Confucian Asian cultural cluster.
  • Use humor cautiously and avoid sarcasm.
  • When talking to non-native English speakers, slow down your rate of speech, clearly articulate your words and pause frequently. Don't over-do it or it's insulting. But this can be helpful even when different accents are involved.
  • Determine whether a customer wants you to "get to the point quickly" or prefers more details.
  • When communicating virtually, learn whether the customer prefers phone or email.

2. Don't take it personally

Remaining neutral and optimistic when a customer is upset is never an easy task. But cultural intelligence helps.

First, don't jump to conclusions too quickly when a customer appears upset. The reaction could be cultural. For example, some individuals have been socialized to raise their voice in order to be heard but it might not mean they're upset with you. And of course with any customer, we never know what else might be going on in their world.

Some cultures teach the importance of saying "Thank you" anytime you're served. Other cultures suggest it's an insult and embarrassing to say "Thank you" too much to someone who makes it their duty to serve you well.

Some customers 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 kind of situation to someone more senior.

So let's be clear. In any culture, there can be rude customers who are out of line. But before you jump to that conclusion, consider whether there's a cultural explanation for the behavior. Take a deep breath, begin with the assumption of positive intent, and think about how culture might be involved in this situation.

3. Resolve conflicts creatively

Let's say 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?

  • Seek to understand and ask questions to fully understand the situation.
  • Alter your expression of empathy for John versus Sanjay. John needs a timely, confident response referring him to the terms and conditions he agreed to. However, Sanjay needs affirmation that the 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.
  • For call center employees who are under pressure to move through calls quickly, realize that in some cases, you're hurting the bottom line and potentially escalating the conflict to not allow a customer to sense that you're working on a resolution with them.

Some customers 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 Singaporean call service employees expressed empathy across cultures.

4. On second thought, be careful how you use these tips

All these suggestions can be dangerous if used without cultural intelligence because it is obviously nonsense to assume that 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 a hypothesis for how a customer is likely to respond. But be ready to adjust your hypothesis when you receive cues that suggest you should go in a different direction. Sometimes the best way to treat a customer is to break the golden rule: Don't assume they want to be treated like you do!

Thanks to Julie Slagter for sharing her insights with me for this piece

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.