Customer Diversity – One size does not fit all

Customer Diversity_MK Africa

Whether you are working in a customer-service call centre serving a global audience, or staffing the customer service desk in a local retail store, you will most certainly be working with a broad range of customers. You will encounter different languages, cultural backgrounds, age groups, genders, and communication styles. Almost everyone you interact with will have a different preference for interpersonal modes and customs. As a skilled customer service worker, it will be your duty to connect with them in the way that best serves their needs, and your company’s interests, in the most efficient and effective way possible.

When it comes to the communications aspect of your customer service strategy, one thing is clear: a cookie-cutter approach will not work.

Professionalism in customer service means different things to different people, but all of them are worthy of your time, respect and attention. When customer service representatives acknowledge and respect diversity, they have a greater opportunity to attract and retain diverse customers, build better rapport with them and increase customer satisfaction.

In this article I’d like to highlight some ideas on how you can develop your cultural competence for customer service to better understand the different needs and expectations of diverse groups of customers.

It is more than good manners

We all know the old golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. But simply treating customers with the same courtesy and dignity is no longer enough in this shrinking world. In order to truly succeed, you need to grow beyond the “one size fits all” mentality and learn to understand and respond appropriately to the preferences of customers from varying ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. In this truly global economy, skills like cultural awareness, flexibility, and effective communication are critical for customer service representatives to properly deal with the expectations of people from different cultures. Then you will understand how to treat customers the way they want to be treated.

Neutral vs. Emotional Cultures

In relationships between people, reason and emotion both play a role.  Which of these dominates will depend upon whether we are affective, that is we show our emotions, in which case we probably get an emotional response in return, or whether we are emotionally neutral in our approach. This is one of the most relevant dimensions for customer service, because it leads to so many obvious misunderstandings between different cultures. How readily customers show their emotion is largely based on culture.

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.

Some cultures 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’. People make a great effort to control their emotions. Reason influences their actions far more than their feelings. They don’t reveal what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling.

Successful strategies you can use include:

  • Manage your emotions effectively and focus on objective arguments.
  • Watch that your body language doesn’t convey negativity.
  • Pay attention to subtle hints to understand the customer’s opinion on something.
  • Watch people’s reactions carefully, as they may be reluctant to show their true emotions.

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. People find ways to express their emotions even spontaneously, at work. In these cultures, it’s welcome and accepted to show emotion.

Successful strategies you can use include:

  • Open up to people to build trust and rapport.
  • Don’t be overwhelmed by seemingly dramatic scenes of emotion.
  • Learn to manage conflict effectively, before it becomes personal.
  • Use positive body language.
  • Have a good attitude.

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Power Distance

People coming from different nations and cultures have various levels of the power-distance dimension—or the distances they believe to exist between different levels of a society. Some cultures have a very high power-distance perspective, and they may well treat you with a certain disregard or even disdain. Cultures with a lower power-distance dimension may see you as a social equal, and will treat you with the same courtesy and respect you offer them in return. A large part of your job is not to judge the merits of cultural differences or change them, but to accommodate them in away—within reason—that best serves your customer.

One of the biggest errors you might make is to try to apply your own cultural beliefs without modification to every customer from every background, which will most certainly lead to frustrated efforts, conflict, bad service, and ultimately a lost customer for your business. As time goes by and with experience, you will become ever better at reading your customers and swiftly modifying your approach as necessary to accommodate the differing demands of a situation.

Try to approach all interactions with a foremost desire to satisfy a customer, setting aside any of your own rigid opinions of how things should be done. Most of all, you should offer respect for the diverse behaviours and different customs among your customers, even though you may not understand them. If you can relax, enjoy, and even learn from the rich cultural and social differences you encounter, you will be well on your way to skilfully serving the wide spectrum of customers you are likely to engage.

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