Excellent customer service - National or international?

Perhaps one of the most important considerations when looking at good customer service is to ask what makes excellent international customer service.  Here are just a few suggestions for making sure you make the right connection with each customer, wherever they are from.

Don’t make assumptions

Sometimes we hear an accent or see a certain style of clothing or appearance and we jump to conclusions about who this customer is, where they are from or how much they know about our products and services. How many women have been patronised in a car show room by a salesman who assumes they know nothing about cars?  We might also make assumptions about our customer’s purchasing power or how ‘difficult’ they are likely to be based on what we think we know about their nationality or cultural background. 

Watch your language

In any customer service context, using too much technical jargon can baffle and even alienate the customer – after all, who enjoys feeling stupid?  Language challenges multiply when your customers don’t share your language.  Rapid speech peppered with colloquialisms and cultural references will leave the customer confused, but equally, talking very slowly and simply is likely to patronise and irritate.  If your first language is your customer’s second or third, make sure your communication is simple but effective.  Pause regularly to give them time to process what you are saying or ask if they are not sure, tune in to their non-verbal signals and check that they have understood.

Titles can matter

Do you call your customers by their first name or by their title and surname? For some cultures using formal terms of address is essential way of showing respect to the customer but for others using the first name will create a better rapport.  Often the best way is simply to ask each customer how they prefer to be addressed.  And be careful not to overuse their name, in whatever format.

What’s in a smile?

In some parts of the world a cheerful smile is crucial when engaging with customers face-to-face.  Not smiling might suggest boredom, disdain or disapproval.  However, in some cultures smiling can raise suspicion, reduce trust and appear inauthentic.  It’s also good to remember that the customer can usually ‘hear’ your smile when you are talking on the telephone so don’t reserve it just for face-to-face communication.

Other non-verbal signals can be equally misleading.  Too much or not enough eye contact?  Keeping a respectful distance or appearing aloof and stand offish? Should you shake hands or not? Observing your customer’s body language and adapting to their style can help to make them feel more comfortable.  Learning to read the real message behind the words is an invaluable skill.

Taking your time?

In some cultures, time is of the essence and a key measure of excellence is how quickly the query or complaint is dealt with.  The transaction is much more important than the relationship.  But what can seem efficient in some cultures can feel rushed and pressured in other settings.  Taking a few minutes to connect with the customer on a personal level, making some small talk or interacting face-to-face rather than by email or telephone can make all the difference to customers from relationship focused cultures.

Concepts like empathy, efficiency and helpfulness may be universal factors in achieving excellent customer service but how they are displayed and recognised can vary greatly.  Taking the time to predict and tune into individual and cultural expectations and preferences will do more for customer engagement that following a magic formula or carefully designed script. 

What other cultural nuances can play apart in getting customer service right with global clients?  Have you ever experienced bad customer service due to cultural or linguistic misunderstandings?

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