Have you ever raised an eyebrow upon hearing about a different cultural habit? Can you understand the meaning of other traditions or routines from the start? Do you want to learn how to deal with customers from different places and cultures? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this article is for you.
Why does understanding cultural differences matter?
To talk about cultural diversity, we have to explain the basic terms first. It might seem obvious, but if our goal is to understand different habits better then we have to know about the roots of the problem.
The essence of cultural diversity in communication
There are thousands of definitions of what culture is. The one that seems most relevant for our use was written by Joynt and Warner and it states: that “culture is the pattern of taken-for-granted assumptions about how a given collection of people should think, act, and feel as they go about their daily affairs”.
Along these lines, cultural differences include various behaviors, practices, beliefs, and expressions that are considered unique to members of a specific race, national origin, or ethnicity. They can also apply between people who have considerable age gaps or completely contrary views on life.
The keyword we will focus on is “assumptions”, as they are what anyone who works with clients from all over the world should restrain themselves from making. At most times, we tend to think first and foremost from our own perspectives. Living in one culture gives rise to prejudices and ethnocentrism, as well as different manners, opinions, and forms of communication.
Instead, we should be open to the fact that someone else may have different life experiences and thus interpret the world in another way altogether.
Cultural differences within your team
Your co-workers and employees are the core of your business. Before you manage cultural differences in terms of your clients, you need to make sure that every team member in your call center feels respected and understood. If the internal atmosphere isn't positive, agents won't be able to handle your customers.
As a team leader or manager, try to find out what cultures meet in your office and educate your employees about them. You can talk with your team members 1-on-1 or organize a group session for everyone to share their traditions and focus on aspects that may help others understand their culture. These provide valuable insights and knowledge on aspects that one should concentrate on during a call.
Another important thing is to prepare your agents to work in a multicultural field before starting their first day at work. For multilingual call center agents, experiencing culture shock is almost unavoidable but can be significantly decreased if appropriately managed.
Cross-cultural customer interactions
It can be more tricky to handle each different culture perfectly when it comes to your clients. Sometimes it may be difficult to know where a person on the phone is from, so it's essential to use call center software that provides such information.
With this knowledge, it will be easier to adjust your tone of voice and the overall message to specifically address the client you're speaking with. We'll focus on the exact strategies that you might choose to adopt in the following sections.
The differences you can encounter as an agent and how to deal with them
In Greece, people nod their heads to show disagreement. That might be tricky to understand for a US citizen, who does the same gesture for appreciation. Although you won’t have face or hand gestures to interpret when talking on the phone, there are still spheres of communication you will deal with daily. To make it as easy as possible, we've identified some call-center-specific issues and prepared tips based upon them to show you how to manage cultural diversity.
Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner said that “culture is the way people resolve dilemmas”, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.
Problem #1 Unknown language or an accent you can’t understand
This is probably one of the biggest problems that can occur when speaking with someone on the phone. You can't see the face of your client, so if they're mumbling you don't have the possibility of interpreting speech by lip reading.
It's never nice to have to ask your customers to repeat themselves constantly, so try to develop a few simple sentences that will help you understand them. These should be your go-to questions to determine the main goal of the caller.
If that doesn't work, there's no point in prolonging the conversation. Suggest switching your client to another agent who would be more suitable for their case. Your call center platform should be able to find and reconnect the customer straight to that person. Skills-based routing is also helpful if you have native speakers among your agents.
Problem #2 Adjusting communication to low and high context cultures
In a nutshell, low context cultures are very explicit, direct, assertive, and don't have many formalities. They appear to be friendly right away and may come across as easy-going. The United States is an example of such a nation.
On the other hand, high context cultures necessitate reading between the lines, and thus have more formalities and hierarchies. They are also based more on relationships because groups take priority over individuals, like in Japan.
Prepare a list of countries for each agent sorted between low or high context cultures. You can also provide your employees with some content on the differences between these two types of communities with bullet points to remember. However, don't overwhelm them with too much information - limit yourself only to the particular countries that a given employee supports.
This way, your agents will know when to be more formal and distanced and when this tactic won’t work. Suppose they speak with an easy-going person who prefers straightforward communication. In that case, there's no need for extra courtesy and it might even seem fake to the person on the phone (and vice versa).
Problem #3 neutral vs. emotional cultures
“Neutral” cultures (like British) hold back displaying emotion. They find showing emotion ”unprofessional” and inappropriate. If you speak with these customers, it might be tricky to sense their approach to the case (which is crucial for outbound call centers) and their mood in general. People from this nation mostly keep a poker face, so too much emotional content might overwhelm or irritate them.
On the other hand, in "emotional" cultures (like Italy or Spain), emotions are regarded as something that helps people communicate and understand each other. They are prone to expressing emotions freely, not only when it comes to happiness but also anger and disappointment. They might even think that you're hiding something from them if you don't show your emotions through tone of voice, and thus perceive you as lacking warmth and trustworthiness.
You can try these tips when dealing with clients from neutral cultures:
- Keep your own emotions under control.
- Focus on the arguments.
- Pay attention to hints and mind your words.
- Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t seem to react positively to your words. Representatives of these cultures may seem to be lacking emotion, but they’re just used to hiding them.
Keep in mind these tactics when speaking to customers from emotional cultures:
- Try to keep calm if the person on the phone makes a dramatic emotional scene. People from these cultures tend to switch from expressing one mood to another quickly and might exaggerate how they feel.
- Don’t hesitate to show how passionate you are about your job and avoid expressionless behavior.
- Bad news - if the client shows positive or negative emotions, this doesn't mean that they’ve made up their mind.
In general, try to adjust your approach to the customer’s behavior.
Leverage your customer service: how to make bonds, not boundaries
The way your agents deal with cultural differences highly impacts the individual customer experience. Besides the aspects mentioned above, there’s a set of actions you can undertake to better adjust your services to cultural variety.
#1 A global mindset is key
It's probably impossible to deal with multiculturalism without an open mind and a dose of understanding. Having a global marketing mindset begins with an awareness of personal and cultural differences, which is why we started this article with the brief theory. Cross-cultural miscommunication happens mainly due to a lack of awareness.
As a call center agent:
- Avoid comparing other cultures to your own.
- Listen with an open mind and try to understand the perspective of someone other than yourself.
As a manager or team leader:
- To make agents more familiar with cultural differences and help them deal with customers' issues, try to raise awareness about various cultures. Provide them with materials, organize workshops to learn relevant techniques, and be open to discussion.
#2 Focus on problem resolution
No matter who you’re speaking with, if you’re working in an inbound call center then your goal is to help the client with their issue and find the right solution as soon as possible. This also applies to outbound call centers, for which your task is to generate new leads and convince them to try out your offer.
In both cases, you need to focus on the main goal, and you have to make powerful arguments in order to achieve it. They’re the core of your actions, so prepare a list of explanations and potential objections so that you will be ready to react immediately. If you have such a handout, you can focus more on adjusting your tone of voice, the level of expressing emotions, and thinking about nuances that matter in terms of cross-cultural customers.
#3 Make it as personal as possible
Everyone wants to feel special. Although treating each client uniquely is almost impossible when you handle many calls daily, remember that you’re probably the first agent they’re speaking with.
If you think about each person as an individual, it will be easier to sense the cultural differences and deal with them. Just check whether the person you're speaking with knows how personal you can get.
#4 Crisis management - put fires out before they burn you
Last but not least, prevention is better than cure. Often when dealing with customers, you can sense trouble brewing. The best thing you can do is react before you have to face thunder. But some cultures might be used to different ways of solving problems.
To prepare your agents for such situations, it is useful to organize workshops about intercultural crisis management. Each agent should be provided with materials that include the most important information about ways to deal with potential conflict among the cultures they are in touch with. This way, they will be able to interpret the behavior of the caller and adjust their words to the situation.
Be able to connect with anyone in the world - technically and emotionally
Of course, since a culture is a set of assumptions, we can't say that each and every representative of one nation or ethnicity has the same set of characteristics. However, some traditional values are transferred from generations and might influence their ways of viewing the world. And understanding various cultures results in the ability to provide a meaningful customer experience.
When working in a call center, the ultimate challenge is to combine an individual approach to each customer together with some generalization. The latter is unavoidable because each employee can’t dedicate a few hours per day to a particular client in order to get to know them better. To help your agents have the best of both worlds, you can arm them with robust automation software.
If you want to find out for yourself how much time you can save thanks to a powerful platform, then start a 14-day trial today! And if you need more personal contact from the beginning, we’d be happy to schedule a demo for you.