GROWING & THRIVING: Customer service beyond the borders

So your business has now grown and has spread its wings into other countries.

You’ve either set offices or following your online presence, someone in another country gets interested in your products / services.  How do you ensure that you serve your customers well, in spite of the differences in culture, language, mannerisms and interpersonal relationships?

Different cultures prescribe different ways of doing things, dealing with others and also defining a people’s expectations from others. While entering a new culture, it is necessary for any business, just like for any human person, to be able to functionally adapt to the new culture.

Culture is as much an influence on people as their personal experiences, so knowing about your clients’ customs and traditions only makes sense. For the entrepreneur penetrating a new cultural frontier in search of greater market share and profits, some basic tactical moves could make the difference between business success and failure.

Assess the importance of customer service to your business

You’d easily assume all businesses value customer service. Before getting started, it is paramount to figure out how important customer service is to your business strategy. For example, if the linchpin of your business differentiation and branding is low prices, product excellence or operating efficiencies, a focus on multicultural competence in customer service may not make as much sense as it would to a business whose services or products touch on matters of speed, personal privacy or importance of relationships. The performance of your customer service functions is directly proportional to the value you attach to that function and your business strategy.

Learn their culture

Culture has many aspects, such as language, dress code, food, behavior, beliefs among others. Learning a new culture is a deliberate process. For starters, language is the all-important tool of communication especially in post-barter trade era. So the faster and the better you learn the basics of the new language the better it is for your business performance. Language is also the transmitter of most of the other elements of culture. As you learn and assimilate in to the new culture, it will reflect on your relations with your customers as they begin to see you as one of their own and build trust in you. A keen interest in learning their culture will earn you customer loyalty. Understanding cultural values, behaviors and attitudes regarding service expectations and a working knowledge of social protocol and etiquette in various cultures is essential for success today.

Identifying the true cultural need

A key to success in business is offering products and services for which customers have a compelling cultural need. The customer has a problem that needs to be solved, and the product or service provides the solution in such an effective way that its benefits are not difficult to communicate within that cultural context. Identifying the true needs of large numbers of people in a foreign culture is not easy. Not having lived in their culture experiencing their day-to-day lives, entrepreneurs in new frontiers can err by assuming that what people in other communities want or need exactly matches the wants and needs of their own cultures.

Cultural nuances

Consumers are influenced to purchase products by marketing messages delivered through the media, including print, broadcast and social media. Humor is often used in commercial messages to get the consumer to pay attention. But what is considered extremely funny in one culture can be perceived as confusing or insulting in another. To produce effective advertising requires more than accurate translation of the message from one language to another. It requires a deep understanding of the culture, customs, morals and even religious views that predominate in that country. What motivates consumers to buy products varies from country to country.

Universal customer expectations

There are certain expectations that are culturally universal; they are standards customers in all cultures expect to be practiced by all business people- courtesy, timeliness, competence.

While it may seem obvious that consumers want this kind of experience, such expectations are subject to cultural, regional and other personal interpretations.

For example, a customer in one culture might be impressed with a trader who takes control of the situation, conveys the confidence that “I can get the job done for you”, chats with the customer, gives him or her recommended choices, and maybe even throws in a joke while the issue is being resolved or the service is being rendered.

This would probably not necessarily impress a customer in another culture, who is used to a business owner who speaks softly or in a higher-pitched tone, and uses honorifics and polite phrases to show respect for the customer by being humble.

Another one might prefer a straight-forward manner–service without a smile–and would feel that anything but the transaction would be excessive and too much like a hard sell.

From a business perspective, it is vital that the service provider accepts the responsibility to adapt as much as possible to the culture of the customer. Customers adapt by moving to a provider that better meets their expectations!

Communication Skills

Business people from different countries can encounter several barriers to effective communication besides obvious language differences. The traditional pace of business negotiations can be different. While in some cultures people naturally want to hurry business negotiations, in some other cultures emphasis is placed on building relationships before a business deal is seriously considered. Executives from other countries may place a higher value on things such as facial expressions instead of just the words that are being said. Understanding the different communication dynamics is key to succeeding in a new cultural frontier.

Be patient when building trust

People from certain cultures may need more time to build trust, while others would need no more than a few encounters to warm their hearts to you. It’s important to observe a greater degree of formality when initially becoming acquainted than you would use with a client from your own culture. You will make many mistakes but that should not come in the way.

Appreciate diversity

It is very unlikely that there is any single market completely dominated by one homogenous culture; most markets are cosmopolitan, although there is in most cases one predominant culture. As an entrepreneur, it helps to appreciate diversity as a gift since all the cultures bring with them their intrinsic fundamental values to the market place.  This is especially so when your product offering is not strategically positioned to cater for a specific cultural group within the market.

‘CORK’ your customers

Customer expectations may vary from one culture to another. Find out what customers want in that culture and treat them as they want to be treated. Customer service is more of knowing and meeting customer needs satisfactorily, including their personal preferences. Most business people make the mistake of assuming a general knowledge of customer needs and end up disappointing their patrons. Customer needs can be analysed using the CORK questioning approach: Circumstance, Obstacle, Repercussion and Key questions.

Circumstance questions will seek to understand the customer’s situation. For instance, what is your experience with the product or service? Obstacle questions help establish the challenges the customer experiences in effective use of the product or service. The question could be: what hinders you from attaining your expected results while using the product/service? Repercussion questions are meant to explain the results of the customer’s usage of the product- what are the outcomes of your usage of our services? Then key questions are solution seeking- what do you think would help you attain maximum or satisfactory performance of our product or service? This approach, although may sound tedious, if repeatedly practiced, would help you easily discover your customers’ needs fully, while on the other hand they will feel they are at the centre of your business operations, and that is what customer service is all about.

New/ social media

Even with new communication technologies, clients in other cultures may still prefer to establish relationships on a personal level. For a medium-sized enterprise, this may not be a major challenge but the value of those interpersonal interactions cannot be overemphasized. Social media should never replace that personal touch with your customers especially when they have serious service concerns. Learn their preferred channels of expressing their disappointments and effectively use them.

Conflict resolution

The urge to resolve a dispute can easily override the consideration of what channels or methods to use in resolving the conflict. Different cultures use different approaches to resolving disputes. Knowledge of how your customers handle disappointments would help cushion your business against the backlash of disgruntled clients.

Sometimes, an entrepreneur may be overwhelmed by the diversity of other regions and realize that their business may not do well in a certain culture. However, instead of quitting, one may opt to create a blue ocean for himself. This means that one can either create a need and meet it or tailor your services and products to meet the existing needs and exceed expectation. There are many ways to skin a cat, all you need to know is which way is faster, is less of a hustle, is most efficient and most effective.