Culture matters: Q&A on how cultural differences impact customer service

cultural differences impact customer service

During the past five years, customer service has entered an entirely new, very global world. Like many large companies, Lexmark has moved distributed, locally managed customer contact operations into centralized shared services centers. We now support customers in countries all over the world with locations in Cebu, Philippines, Budapest, Hungary and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The work of the shared services centers includes customer contact for order management support, technical support, collections follow-up on payment issues and product returns, and managing fleet operations for our managed print services customers.

While technology and the emergence of global workforces have enabled cost efficiency and process improvement from utilizing these shared services centers, they bring an entirely new set of cultural differences that, if not effectively managed and overcome, might make or break the customer experience.

We sat down with Jim Brucken, Lexmark’s director of Global Supply Chain Operations Worldwide, to find out his thoughts on how cultural differences impact customer service, and how he and his team work to ensure every Lexmark customer receives top-notch customer service.

Tell us about the ways you’ve seen cultural differences impact customer service.

Boiled down, customer service is all about effective communication. Cultural differences dictate the manner of communication. For example, our customer service representatives are trained to know that when they are working with a business in France, they must speak French and use professional courtesies accepted in the local culture, or when working with a customer in Italy, that they prefer to respond by phone rather than email.

We have several customer service professionals who are bilingual and can address a customer in Colombia or Mexico formally in Spanish, but also can address Brazilian customers in Portuguese with the recognition of the desire for a more friendly and informal discussion.

The level of need for written documentation varies by culture, meaning for some business we must provide written, signed and printed documents rather than an automated purchase order transaction.

When it comes to gaining feedback to help resolve a customer issue, it is important to understand the culture of the business providing the responses. Many cultures acknowledge a problem, seeming to agree to take action to resolve, when they are simply providing acknowledgement that they understand you.

What are some strategies you use for managing cultural differences? How do you approach language barriers and overcome them?

In the customer services area, we segment our operations by country and region. We determine whether English or local language support is needed, assessing the common business practices and cultural acceptance, as well as the complexity and frequency of customer service interaction. This helps us determine where we provide customer service by country.

We provide training on cultural differences for employees and managers to help them understand acceptance of aggressive and passive communication and cultural norms. We also provide language skills training, although proficiency is a fundamental hiring requirement.

We find that in business situations, processes and issues are very similar across each location, giving our customer service teams the ability to have a base knowledge and skill set to provide great service. Even though there is an advantage of grouping teams according to a region and being intimate with certain languages and unspoken rules, what matters the most is training and developing an employee mindset that recognizes and honors each customer as an individual. As long as the customer service team has an open mind and is willing to embrace uniqueness and understand the business processes, then the cultural differences matter less.

We also look to standardize and automate communications processes through self-help tools, online order status and online technical support.

How do you prepare for an international meeting, whether it be over the phone or in person, to ensure you are able to understand the cultural differences you will encounter?

Our customer services teams have hundreds of international meetings every day. These meetings are commonly conducted remotely via conference calls and can be ineffective due simply to barriers in communication if not handled correctly. Whether it is driven by language proficiency or cultural innuendos, the meetings can fail to provide true common understanding. Unfortunately, emails provide specific details in writing but are also often misinterpreted.

One way we combat these problems is by combining traditional forms of communications with face-to-face interactions such as video conferences or chats. When we have visual representation of what’s being discussed, it helps close cultural gaps and enables us to better understand the customer’s needs. Relationships and the overall experience also significantly improve when a face is paired with a name.

During international meetings, it is important to follow certain protocols that work across different cultures – listing objectives, introductions and backgrounds, taking turns to state who is talking on calls, asking for clarification prior to discussion to help resolve an issue, and avoiding the use of slang and explaining metaphors, as these often do not translate.

We also have many face-to-face customer visits. These require the same understanding of protocols and cultural awareness. We use customer visit prep checklists and pre-reviews to help ensure the meetings are productive. These face-face meetings have yielded the best results at gaining actionable input and leaving a positive impression with our customers, allowing the best bridge of cultural differences.

Oftentimes we are not aware of the cultural assumptions we carry—how do you go about recognizing your own assumptions and examining your own biases? How do you teach people to be aware of this and proceed accordingly with customers?

We do a lot of this by looking at our internal operations. Cultural assumptions can be overcome by breaking down silos and bringing teams together as one. Once the silos are gone, it is easier to identify and be sensitive and respectful of our varied cultural heritages.

For example, in defining a standard returns process, our customer services leads had to develop a global project team with members from sales, IT, accounting and supply chain across all our geographies and get them centered around common goals to make the return process seamless for all customers. The team had to understand diverse perspectives and differences in our own organizations and locations.They ultimately not only improved the accuracy of returns credit applied to our customer accounts, but gained understanding of the cultural differences they would encounter with our customers.

As a global company, we want employees who are comfortable with the fact that there are differences in culture, values and beliefs. When we practice this in the way we work together, the mindset and experience translates to how we serve our customers worldwide.

How do you measure customer satisfaction across the globe?

At Lexmark, we have many internal measures to reflect customer satisfaction, such as how quickly technical support calls are processed, how accurately we capture order entries, the on-time delivery performance of our product deliveries and many more. These tend to be unique per function, but nearly identical across the globe.

We also work hard to get direct customer feedback through surveys, customer calls and even on-site customer meetings. This gives us a truer customer perspective to balance with our internal measures. We call this “listening to the voice of the customer.” We also conduct internal sales surveys to keep a pulse on our strength and opportunity areas so we can continually improve.

We do see cultural differences come into play with this type of direct feedback, as it is more subjective in nature. We see customers in Germany and Japan provide lower ratings than those in the U.S. or South America, even when they have the same internal service level performance.

Here’s an example. One of our biggest customers in Germany consistently gave us low scores. However, after a two-day workshop in our Budapest location, where we listened to their needs, learned the cultural differences that helped us identify ways to improve our customer service, we immediately started to score much higher. This is a great example of how we  can provide value to the customer by listening to their needs and make the necessary changes to improve our level of service.