Understanding Cultural Diversity in Customer Service

Don’t you just hate to talk to someone who stands too close? You move back, he moves forward. Few people know, however, that much of what we consider a ‘comfortable speaking distance’ is determined by culture.

In Body Language , authors Allan and Barbara Pease analyzed video footage from a business conference. They describe that by fast-forwarding the tapes, couples of Japanese and American businessmen in conversation seemed to be dancing through the room.

Every time the American would take a step back to reach a comfortable distance, the Japanese would follow with a step forward to compensate to his idea of talking comfort.

What is cultural diversity, and why does it matter in customer service?

When dealing with people from cultures we’re unfamiliar with, it’s easy to ‘take a step too close’. This can lead to confusion, annoyance, and frustration.

In customer service, in which you’re dealing with many people every day, being aware of cultural diversity is a must. And it’s even more important in eCommerce – since customers can come in from all over the world.

But what is culture, really? The above example of interpersonal distance is actually just a surface scratch. Culture goes deeper. It’s about values and beliefs, and the behaviors that flow from them. The best definition I know is by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner in the book Riding the Waves of Culture :

Culture is the way people resolve dilemmas.

Take as an example the dilemma of equality versus freedom. We can all agree with the idea that all humans should have the same rights and opportunities. At the same time, we also sympathize with the idea that every human should have the freedom to do as she pleases.

But we can’t have both. If everyone would be free to do as she pleases, some would oppress others, and there would be no equality. Culture, then, is the way societies resolve such dilemmas.

In this post we’ll cover the relevant ways that cultures differ from one another, and how to address this in customer service. For this we’ll look at 3 gurus of cultural diversity.

Instead of covering each dimension, I’ve included the dimensions most relevant for customer support.

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As David Champion reminds us in HBR , it’s important to remember that everything in cultural diversity is relative . A German might feel that Italians lack punctuality in time, but Italians will feel the same way about people from India. So always consider your cultural position relative to your customer’s. At the bottom of the post I’ll share some practical resources for deploying your newfound insights in the field.

Neutral vs Emotional Cultures

This is one of the most relevant dimensions for customer service, because it leads to so many obvious misunderstandings between different cultures.

Some cultures, Trompenaars argues, condemn the display of emotions more than others. In these ‘neutral’ cultures, emotions are thought to distort our reasoning, and showing them is regarded as ‘unprofessional’.

In ‘emotional’ cultures, on the other hand, emotions are regarded as what makes us human, allowing us to communicate and understand one another. They see the hiding of emotions, as done in neutral cultures, as lacking warmth and trustworthiness.

4 smileys from sad to happy.
How readily customers show their emotions is largely based on culture

This easily translates to customer service. Customers from emotional cultures will freely share when they are angry , disappointed, or happy about something. Those from neutral cultures will mostly keep up a poker face.

When dealing with customers from neutral cultures:

  • Don’t be depressed by a seeming lack of emotions.
  • Keep your own emotions in control, focus on objective arguments.
  • Pay attention to subtle hints to understand the customer’s opinion on something.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): Japanese, British.

When dealing with customers from emotional cultures:

  • Don’t be overwhelmed by seemingly dramatic scenes of emotion.
  • Return warmth when it is expressed, avoid expressionless behavior.
  • Clear positive or negative emotions don’t mean the customer has made up her mind.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): Netherlands, Mexico, Italy, Spain.

Universalist vs Particularist Cultures

Imagine you’re running a popular restaurant. One night, a queue of people waiting for a seat extends around the corner. Then your cousin walks in: “Hey buddy, we didn’t make a reservation. But maybe you could pretend we did and give us a table? ;)”

Rules or relationships? That’s the dilemma addressed by this second cultural dimension. People from North-Western Europe or the USA tend to favor rules. In many South American and Asian countries, however, even the people waiting in the queue will expect you to give the table to your cousin – based on your personal relationship.

Translated to customer service, customers in universal cultures expect to be treated like everyone else. They want the same rules that apply to anyone else to apply to them, and will judge anything that violates this.

Customers in particularistic countries, however, expect more privileges if they have a personal relationship with the company or are long-time customers – for example by receiving priority service.

When dealing with customers from universalistic cultures:

  • Don’t be offended by ‘get down to business attitudes’.
  • Focus on rational, objective arguments.
  • Treat customers according to a clear set of rules.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): United States, Canada, UK, Australia, Germany, Sweden.

When dealing with customers from particularistic cultures:

  • Take “small talk” seriously — it’s to build up a relationship.
  • Focus on building up personal relationships with your customers, since this will give you privileges.
  • Grant priorities to loyal or known customers.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): Venezuela, Indonesia, China, South Korea, Russia.

High vs Low Context Communication

According to Meyer, different cultures assume different levels of intuitive understanding, either high understanding (high context) or low understanding (low context). What this means is that in low context cultures, people are very explicit, simple, clear, and straightforward in their communication, avoiding as much confusion as possible.

In high context cultures, however, people leave much more space to the other side to read between the lines. Messages are implied, but not explicitly stated.

When dealing with customers from higher context cultures:

  • Don’t take what the customer says at face value.
  • Pay attention to hidden, subtle messages.
  • Beware of any double meanings that your own communication might have.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): Japan, Indonesia, Russia, France.

When dealing with customers from lower context cultures:

  • Take what your customer says at face value.
  • Be simple, precise, and clear in your communication.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): US, Netherlands, Canada, Germany.

Individualistic vs Communitarian Cultures

Do you see yourself more as an individual, or as part of a group?

Cartoon of a group splitting up from an individual.

In individualistic cultures, Trompenaars argues, people regard everyone as an individual whose worth is independent of the opinions of other people. The national myths promote standing out of the crowd, choosing and going your own way. “Here’s to the crazy ones!”. The individual is more important than the group, and you must fend for yourself.

In communitarian cultures, on the other hand, what other people think of you is very important. Your value depends on your position in the social hierarchy and on what other people think of you. The group is more important than the individual, and it provides you with support in exchange for loyalty.

When dealing with customers from individualistic cultures:

  • Present product/service in terms of how it helps the customer stand out.
  • Address the customer’s personal decision making power.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): United States, Netherlands.

When dealing with customers from communitarian cultures:

  • Focus on building lasting relationships.
  • Present product/service in terms of how it helps the customer fit in or how it benefits her group.
  • Try to get buy-in from the group.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): Germany, China, France, Japan, Singapore.

Power Distance

How comfortable are you with people being higher or lower than you in a hierarchy? Hofstede found that this level of comfort differs greatly between cultures. While some people have an almost allergic reaction to anything hierarchical, others accept and follow authority without question.

Cartoon of boss whipping his employee.

This is closely related to Meyer’s cultural dimension of Leading . In some cultures, like Scandinavian ones, it’s considered best if the boss is almost at eye level with the rest of the team, playing a facilitating role. In others, like Japanese, the boss is always high above her employees.

In service, customers from high power distance cultures are likely to ask to “speak to the manager” when they have a complaint. Customers from lower power distance cultures are less likely to ask this, because they don’t value authority that much. Talking to a frontline employee is almost as good as talking to the boss. Customers from high power distance cultures are also more likely to act authoritatively than those from low power distance cultures.

When dealing with customers from high power distance cultures:

  • Respect and mention the customer’s (high) job title or position.
  • Expect customers to ask for your position.
  • Don’t expect that ‘empowered employees’ can resolve issues with important customers.
  • Example cultures (source: Hofstede): China, Japan, Russia, Poland, Saudi Arabia.

When dealing with customers from low power distance cultures:

  • Don’t mention the customer’s job title or position when it isn’t relevant.
  • Empowered and trained employees can resolve issues with important customers.
  • Example cultures (source: Hofstede): Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia.

Achievement vs Ascription Cultures

Many famous rappers from the US take pride in “having started from the bottom”. This culture clearly promotes the idea that it’s about what you do (achievement), not where you come from (ascription). Contrast that to India, where the prevailing caste system lets your birth largely determine matters like your career and marriage.

In achievement cultures, your self value is based on what you’ve done – on your performance; in ascription cultures, it’s based on who you are – your power, title, age, position, attended university, etc.

Misunderstandings can easily take place in service settings between members of these cultures. In Japan, for example, age carries much more authority than in the US. So when an elderly Japanese customer is served by a young American rep, expectations will vary about the level of respectfulness.

When dealing with customers from achievement cultures:

  • Show respect for status based on achievements.
  • Don’t mention titles when irrelevant to the issue.
  • Focus on data for making a point.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): US, Austria, Israel, Switzerland and the UK.

When dealing with customers from ascription cultures:

  • Show respect for status based on age, power, position, etc.
  • Mention titles, even when irrelevant to the issue.
  • Have an older member in your service team who can talk with older customers on an equal footing.
  • Example cultures (source: Riding the Waves of Culture ): Venezuela, Indonesia, and China.

Negative Feedback

Meyer explains that some cultures are very direct in giving direct feedback, while others will do so subtly and politely. Being aware of this will protect you from a falsely positive or negative perception when receiving feedback from culturally diverse customers.

When dealing with customers from more direct feedback cultures:

  • Don’t be shocked by direct feedback.
  • Don’t assume that negative feedback means you’ve lost the customer.
  • Be clear in your communication. If something isn’t possible, simply say so.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): Netherlands, Russia, Israel, Germany.

When dealing with customers from more indirect feedback cultures:

  • Be more perceptive to what sounds like mere suggestions.
  • Take explicit negative feedback very seriously: you’ve almost lost the customer.
  • Be gentle in your communication. If something isn’t possible, say: “That’s a good idea. I will look into it, but it will probably be difficult.”
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico.

Deductive vs Inductive Persuasion

When you’re in customer service, you’re dealing with people. And when you’re dealing with people, you are in the persuasion business. Cultures differ, however, in the best structure of arguments to use.

Meyer shows that some cultures prefer deductive arguments, in which theories, philosophies, and deeper concepts are presented before the statement, or opinion. In other cultures, it is prefered to focus first on a practical use case, like a fact, statement, or opinion, and later back this up concepts. Theoretical discussions are avoided.

When dealing with customers from more deductive persuasion cultures:

  • Explain value by moving from theories and deeper concepts to practical applications.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): Italy, France, Spain, Russia..

When dealing with customers from more inductive persuasion cultures:

  • Explain value by starting at practical application, and back up with concepts.
  • Avoid deep theoretical arguments.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): US, Canada, UK, Nertherlands.

Time Scheduling

cartoon of person hanging on a clock.

We’re all familiar with the stereotypes of the time-strict German and the laid back Jamaican who is always late. It derives from a deeper philosophical stance on the predictability of the future.

Meyer argues that some cultures believe the future can be strictly planned (linear time). A tight deadline schedule is made, and perfect execution is followed. In other cultures the future is regarded as more fluid, and plans are set up as an intention, but subject of change (flexible time). Adaptability and flexibility are valued.

Being aware of these differences can help you prevent misunderstandings with your customers.

When dealing with customers from more linear time cultures:

  • Realize that the planning mentioned by you or the customer is interpreted as precise.
  • Be very explicit when a planning, like delivery date or time, is an estimation.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden.

When dealing with customers from more flexible time cultures:

  • Realize that plannings are always intentions and estimations.
  • Be as flexible as possible.
  • Example countries (source: The Culture Map ): Saudi Arabia, India, China, Nigeria, Brazil.

Other Factors

These are definitely not the only differences between cultures. Hofstede and Trompenaars discuss more dimensions in their books, and I'd recommend reading them to expand your understanding of all cultural dimensions.

The dimensions covered above are ‘macro level differences’, which should help you understand the behavior of customers from other cultures, and adjust yours accordingly.

There are many other manifestations of cultures, however, that don’t fit these dimensions. Take something as random as napping at work. In Europe and the US that’s surely a taboo. In Japan, however, sleeping at work is not only acceptable, it’s admired! It’s taken as proof that the person has been working hard.

You’ll never be aware of all the cultural differences. That’s OK. Knowing that there are differences, however, and recognizing the logic from cultures different from yours, will help you as a service professional.

What’s more, these cultural differences can take place within one society. The US, for example, is host to a plethora of cultures. Then there are lots of variations and mixes between the dimensions above, and globalization makes things even more complex.

So instead of assuming a certain cultural programming when dealing with a customer from a different culture, start with an open attitude and be perceptive of the differences you’ve read about here, and adjust your behavior when you see fit.

Some helpful resources to put it all into practice:

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