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Customer Service and Cultural Differences

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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.

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. (Source: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Customer Service)

Don’t you agree?

Also, are you aware that oftentimes when running the customer service side of the online business, you will NOT be dealing with people only from your own cultural background? Quite the contrary!

Different nations, religions and cultures have behavioral and belief-oriented differences and this affects how the CSR (Customer Service Representative) should communicate with the customer.

As Julien S. Bourrelle says, we all see the world through cultural glasses. By changing glasses you can change the way you perceive the behaviors of others. He believes that we have the opportunity to increase the competitiveness of businesses and to create a better functioning multicultural society by helping people to communicate better across cultures.

Watch the following video and listen to this expert helping us to be more aware of how our behaviors can be interpreted differently than intended by people of other cultures.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive, step-by-step training for cultural differences, but we want our students to have an initial understanding and to be aware of the idea so that your CSR online career can thrive.

Thus, the aim of this lesson is to help you, a CSR to-be, understand the basics of the behaviours and psychology when providing customer service.

First, let’s have a few words on cultural diversity and see why it matters in your future career at all. Fasten your seatbelts!

What Is Cultural Diversity, and Why Does It Matter in Customer Service?

In customer service, in which you’re dealing with many people every day, being aware of cultural diversity is a MUST.

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.

There’s a popular ‘iceberg model’ of culture. Ever heard of it?

Here’s the ‘cultural iceberg theory’ briefly explained.

The culture or cultures you grow up in affect your deepest attitudes and beliefs, giving you your sense of what’s good or right, what feels comfortable, what behavior is acceptable, and conversely what’s not. What other people see may be only those things ‘on the surface’ – for example, the way you talk or act, what you eat and how you dress.

That’s why culture is often represented as an iceberg. Ten percent is the ‘surface culture’ that shows above the water line and 90%, known as ‘deep culture’, is hidden below.

The hidden part of the iceberg influences everything you do and yet you may not even realise it.

Source: Cultural Heritage Below the Water Line

A deep connection to consumers and customers entails understanding the simultaneous psycho-socio-cultural variables that create the society in which we live. Our culture shifts regularly as do our associated value systems, perceptions, attitudes and subsequent behavior.

the cultural iceberg

Furthermore, Geert Hofstede defines culture as ‘the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another’. The ‘category’ can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or the genders.

Source: How to Understand Cross-Cultural Communication?

In Understanding Cultural Diversity in Customer Service, an amazing article we mentioned in the introduction, the author covered the relevant ways that cultures differ from one another, and how to address this in customer service based on 3 gurus of cultural diversity:

Don’t hesitate to follow the links and take a quick peek! That’s why they’re here.

Instead of covering each dimension, only the dimensions most relevant for customer support have been included in the article.

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.

Now it’s time for you to dig deeper and more thoroughly into the article Understanding Cultural Diversity in Customer Service so that you learn much more about the following cultural dimensions and find out some valuable practical tips on how to deal with customers coming from:

  • Neutral vs emotional cultures
  • Universalist vs particularist cultures
  • High vs low context cultures
  • Individualistic vs communitarian cultures
  • High vs low power distance cultures
  • Achievement vs ascription cultures
  • Direct vs indirect negative feedback cultures
  • Deductive vs inductive persuasion cultures, and
  • Linear vs flexible time cultures

Enjoy reading and learning!


Haven’t we told you this content provides an enormous wealth of important and relevant information in a very concise form? Now you see why? Great!

We bet you’ve been careful and thorough enough to notice the helpful resources and handy tools to put it all into practice suggested at the end of the article.

As the author further states, 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.

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.

Therefore, according to this author’s advice, 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.

Now, listen how Dr. Tom Verghese briefly explains some cultural communication differences regarding communication and listening styles, body language, tonality, and the challenges they can present in cross-cultural communication.

When speaking about the importance of recognizing cultural diversity, it’s impossible not to mention another valuable source Customer Diversity: Providing Great Customer Experience Across Cultures.

In this article, you’ll find 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.

As they’ve cleverly noticed, the world is getting smaller. Nations and communities are becoming more diverse. Due to advances in communication, the spread of online industry and the ease of travel, many businesses today can expand to cross cultural and geographic boundaries.

With the rapid changes in technology, modern day customers have grown comfortable with shopping online from whichever corner of the world they like, and online businesses may easily receive orders from virtually anywhere.

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.

Whether your customer interactions are carried out by phone, via email, in Live Chat or in person, there are some common sense principles that could significantly improve service and make cross-cultural customer interactions simple.

You wonder how? What are you waiting for? Read the full article and find out!

Read it? Great!

Now, you may also want to take a peek at this video about cultural diversity and find out some important expert tips for communicating with people from different cultures with cultural awareness.

It’s not about customer service but communication in general. However, you’ll surely find it useful.

Now, it’s time for you to learn more details about how cultural differences can influence customer service so let’s see.

How Cultural Differences Impact Customer Service

Jim Brucken, Lexmark’s director of Global Supply Chain Operations Worldwide, shared 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.

According to this expert, boiled down, customer service is all about effective communication. Cultural differences dictate the manner of communication.

For example, their 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.

They further state that 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.

To find out more about the strategies they use for managing cultural differences, examining their own biases and overcoming barriers to achieve customer satisfaction across the globe, read the full interview on why culture matters.

Additionally, when speaking about effective communication as the key to excellent customer service, here’s a video for you to check showing an example of successful cross-cultural communication in practice.

You see how this CSR is adapting to the customer’s unique needs? She speaks slowly, clearly, and properly. When the customer uses unfamiliar words, she seeks to re-frame to understand her. Despite being challenged by the communication difficulties, this CSR takes personal responsibility, finds a solution, and ultimately triumphs with yet another happy customer.

So, let’s briefly summarize some basic tips that will enhance your verbal communication effectiveness when speaking to people from other cultures.

According to Steven R. Van Hook in Working with Customer Diversity, 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.

There are a number of tactics you can employ to ensure optimal communication with regard to linguistic, cultural, and demographic factors when serving diverse and multicultural customers. To find out what to pay special attention to, read the full article linked above.

Done? Isn’t it full of simple yet powerful tips and tricks? Now when you know all that, you will be well on your way to skillfully serving the wide spectrum of customers, won’t you?

You may also want to check 7 ways culture should be taken into account in customer service centers to find out more.

Cultural awareness and skills are keys to effective service when serving customers across language and cultural differences.

Cultural collisions occur when you are unaware of culture’s impact on your customer service delivery style and on the customer’s service expectations. Many times, unaware of potential pitfalls, you will find that the falling into one of the four cultural collision traps may prevent you from meeting the needs of your increasingly multicultural and multilingual customer base.

Curious to find out what they are? Then, go ahead, follow the link and learn!

Gained some precious knowledge? Certainly!

Now, let’s move on to the core principle of cross-cultural communication. Although it seems too complex, the point is actually pretty simple. Here’s what it all basically boils down to.

The Core Principle of Cross-Cultural Communication

As discussed in Customer Service And Cultural Differences: Why They Matter (And What Matters More), it’s true that best-intentioned customer-facing employees can still create a poor impression with customers from a different part of the world due to cultural differences of which they’re not aware. The same may be true when they interact with a different subculture within their same country as well.

Culture is the set of assumptionstraditions, and values a community develops over time.

Thus, members of a culture other than yours may interpret your behavior in ways that haven’t occurred to you, because of their community’s own assumptions, traditions, or values.

If you want to manage this risk, put some work into becoming expert on cultures that your company serves and expert at cross-cultural communication in general.

However, always make sure to apply your new cultural expertise flexibly. Individuals don’t always subscribe to their culture’s assumptions, norms, or values. Personality or family background can be a more powerful determinant of an individual’s values.

In fact, think about your customers as individuals rather than as groups.

What’s more, there is no such thing as customers as a plural, or if there is, it’s a hard concept to build a business on. What matters most in providing great service is that you recognizehonor, and serve Jack’s jackness and Joanna’s joannaness and Yoshi’s yoshiness, rather than their overall customerness in the aggregate.

Because this is such a tough principle to follow, to instruct in, to train for, it’s by and large overlooked. Which is where we get one size fits nobody scripting, excessive regulations and inflexible policies, coaching that is punitive and a slew of other ills.

Got it? Sure.

Besides treating EVERY customer as a unique human being, ALWAYS bear in mind the golden rule of customer service:

Do unto your customers as you want to be treated when you are a customer.

That’s the wisdom and the secret at the core of customer service. We all know it, right? Yet, many of us often seem to forget it in our everyday communication.

So, always remember to be a decent human being and show respect first. It’s crucial. The rest will simply follow, especially if you work on developing your CQ.

Never heard of it? Don’t worry! Just keep reading and you’ll find out everything you need to know about it at this point.

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) – What It Is and Why It’s Important

You’ve certainly heard of IQ, which represents a measurement of your intelligence, right? Similarly, most people have also heard of EQ, which stands for emotional intelligence.

However, not so many people are familiar with the term CQ – cultural intelligence. As a future CSR, you need to be aware of its basics at least. So, let’s talk about it a bit and see what other experts have to say.

Here’s the notion of cultural intelligence briefly explained according to an expert in this field, Felicity Menzies, in her article Cultural Intelligence: A New Competency For The Global Workplace.

Cultural Intelligence is the set of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to recognize, understand, reflect on, and adapt to cultural differences.

Individuals with high Cultural Intelligence display four main competencies:

  • CQ Drive is the willingness to work with others from diverse backgrounds. It includes an ability to overcome explicit or unconscious bias and the capacity to persist in challenging intercultural settings—even when the individual feels confused, frustrated, or burnt out.
  • CQ Knowledge is the understanding of culture and cultural differences. That involves more than awareness of variations in language, customs, and appearance. Core cultural differences like values, assumptions, and beliefs are often invisible but cause the most problems—and are frequently overlooked.
  • CQ Strategy is the ability to flex mentally. With high CQ Strategy, individuals are not confined to a single worldview. They are open to new or integrative ideas.
  • CQ Action is the ability to flex verbal and non-verbal behavior. CQ Action decreases the risk of miscommunication and helps an individual respond to diverse others in a manner that conveys respect and builds trust and rapport.

As another expert, Declan Mulkeen investigates and then states in his article Cultural Intelligence: What it Can do for Offshorers, call center agents lack cultural understanding and the ability to empathize.

He identifies cultural intelligence as the missing ingredient that could facilitate the promised higher levels of customer service, improved rates of customer retention and, ultimately, enhanced cost savings.

As the author says, many of the problems that call centers experience with their customers are a result of misunderstandings on both a linguistic and cultural level.

While this has been increasingly recognized by contact centers, the training that employees receive continues to focus primarily on language and places little emphasis on culture. This is simply no longer sufficient.

Employees of contact centers need to take the next step in their development so as to communicate more effectively with people from other cultures and therefore improve overall customer satisfaction and experience. What they need is cultural intelligence (CQ).

According to this author, a person with cultural intelligence is able to apply their understanding and knowledge of another culture and successfully interpret and adapt to new cultural situations.

Cultural intelligence encompasses the knowledge, motivation, skills and behaviors that are necessary for effective communication across cultures to take place:

  • Knowledge. Cultural intelligence is knowledge about another culture, but also knowledge of one’s own culture and understanding of how it influences individual behaviors. A person with CQ can use this knowledge to identify specific behaviors and attitudes of another culture and effectively adapt to them.
  • Motivation. Cultural intelligence is also having the motivation to learn about and experience other cultures as well as the willingness and ability to change one’s own mental processes and attitudes to those of the other culture.
  • Skills. Cultural intelligence is having the right skill set so as to interact effectively in another culture. This includes communication, interpersonal, empathy and rapport-building skills, all of which are key factors for successful interactions with people from a different culture.
  • Behaviors. Behaviors are an essential part of cultural intelligence, but since they are often so ingrained in a person’s character, this is one of the hardest things to change and develop. Being able to interpret a situation and use the appropriate behavior is essential for successful cross-cultural interactions.

Cultural intelligence takes communicating across cultures to the next level. While it may take time and patience to learn and develop a person’s cultural intelligence, it is possible to increase it so that almost immediate differences are noted.

As further stated in the same article, cultural intelligence is more than just knowing about another culture or being able to speak the language. It is the ability to identify individual and cultural behaviors and adapt so that communication and interactions across cultures are more successful.

So, just what does a culturally intelligent person look like?

Read the full Mulkeen’s article linked above and find out more about the characteristics of an individual with cultural intelligence.

Done? Excellent! Now when you know all these things, think about the following…

If you were asked about your Cultural IQ, what do you think it would be? Did you know that Hispanics, Asians, African-American and other multicultural groups think, act and innovate differently? Did you know that they are wired in ways that the traditional workplace continues to ignore?

In today’s global marketplace, you must be culturally intelligent. It’s a business imperative.

Source: The Lack of Cultural Intelligence is Damaging Our Enterprises and Our Economy

With increased connectivity across all companies and individuals, and with global collaboration becoming increasingly instrumental for business success, cultural intelligence – or cultural quotient – (CQ) has taken on a new significance.

It’s no wonder, right? You may want to read the whole article and learn more about the importance of cultural intelligence within a global organization.

Another fabulous article full of precious hacks on how to develop your CQ is also waiting for you. So, read Why You Need Cultural Intelligence (And How To Develop It) and you won’t regret it.

As you’ve probably noticed, all these experts agree that cultural intelligence is a crucial skill in today’s world. As we are working and living in a multicultural community, acquiring a different set of perspectives, knowledge and skills is important in order to succeed.

You need to be prepared to communicate and work with people from different backgrounds, races and cultures. Gaining knowledge about other cultures is no longer optional. It is necessary in order to learn, understand and deal with different situations competently.

So, don’t hesitate to go through Cultural Intelligence and Its Importance in the Workplace and learn how to enhance the level of your CQ, what are the benefits of it and the reasons to develop it.

Also, social networks have supported global economy growth and the development of new business trends as well as the upbringing of a new culture of connectivity and of sharing. Cultural intelligence is all about TRUST: Tolerance, Respect, Unity, Solidarity and Teamwork. (You’ll reveal the other advantages of cultural intelligence in business if you follow the link.)

If you’re curious, you may also want to check out an article about some business problems caused by failures of cultural intelligence.

Want to become more culturally competent? Start with your cultural self-awareness. (We bet you’ve noticed those valuable further resources.)

Yeah, we know… There are always those individuals who are super curious and dedicated and who always feel they need and want even more! Lucky you if you’re one of them! In the next subsection, we’ve compiled some of the best sources relevant for you to learn from.

Have fun!

Other Suggested Resources to Learn From

For those who want to explore the topic further and gain more in-depth knowledge about customer service and cultural differences, here are the sources worth checking.

Of course, you’re not expected to read every single word and article and watch every video we linked to (but you may if you please). Feel free to do your own research and choose the sources according to your needs and personal preferences.

Note: Some resources may not be specifically written for CSRs but we included them here because we strongly believe you can benefit from them.

Happy learning!

Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Business: In Other Words, ‘Keep Your Fingers to Yourself!’

Here are some highlights from this article. You’ll find out more details when you read it.

Gestures are one of the first things to come to mind that can cause a major cultural faux pas. They can quickly sabotage anyone, including the most savvy business professionals. People from every culture, including various country leaders and several U.S. presidents, have been guilty of unintentionally offending people from different cultures through the use of inappropriate gestures. When it comes to body language gestures, the wisest advice might be to keep your fingers to yourself!

When it comes to body language gestures in the communication process, the important thing to keep in mind is that what we say, we say with our wordstonality, and body language.

Our body language often conveys more than the words we use. At times, it can completely change — or even nullify — our words’ meaning.

10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers

Summary of the book Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Countries by Brooks Peterson

Cultural Intelligence and its impact on business

Cultural Intelligence in the Globalized Work Environment

Cultural Intelligence: The Essential Intelligence for the 21st Century

Erin Meyer’s blog is full of valuable articles that can help you learn how to navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a global environment as she says. Go ahead, explore her website. Although it’s been mainly aimed at cross-cultural business managers, you’ll certainly find something for yourself.

Transcending Culture is a video on cross-cultural communication (with notes), which considers international communication tactics, using themes and images that transcend cultural differences.

Cultural Differences and Communication Problems With International Business

Communication Challenges in a Global Market

How to Use Good Communication Skills for Cross-Cultural Diversity

5 Best Practices for Serving Diverse Customers

8 Tips for How to Approach Cross-Cultural Customer Support

If you prefer videos over reading, here are 2 more you might want to watch and learn from: Cultural Misunderstandings (Part 1) and Cultural Misunderstandings (Part 2).

Here’s another video on cross-cultural communication you may like.

Next, here are a couple of short videos about unconscious bias people have and how to overcome those unconscious bias, just to test yourself quickly if you want to.

Then, you may want to check another video to see how people react when playing Barnga – an intercultural simulation game for practicing intercultural competence. Here are the instructions for playing the game so that you can follow the video more easily.

And here are some more Multicultural, Cross-cultural & Intercultural Games & Activities to explore and possibly play for those who like them.

Just for fun, can you spot the forty cultural mistakes made in this video? A life insurance salesman tries to sell a policy to a Hispanic customer. See how many cultural mistakes you can find.

Some more videos on the topic:

Here are also a few webinars for you to watch if you please:

Let’s explore even further!

There are some courses aiming at raising awareness of culture and diversity:

They also provide Online Business & Cultural Awareness Training Courses and many good Resources and Information For Cultural Understanding.

Then, you can have fun and learn about yourself by checking their quizzes. Isn’t that interesting?

Or you can grab a copy of their Self-Study Cultural Awareness Manual, which will give you a basic introduction to cross-cultural communication and how improving communication skills leads to deeper understanding.

Additionally, you might want to read some of their relevant blog articles such as:

How many wonderful resources there are just in one place!

Here are several interesting articles that provide insights into some aspects in different cultures:

PRISM offers another training on Increasing Cultural Competencies and Cultural Diversity Training Resources, which will help you learn how to provide outstanding service across cultures.

Cross-Cultural Communication is a course at Universal class you may consider checking. Also, take a peek at their excellent articles and the other articles or courses suggested after each of these:

Here’s some more cross-cultural and diversity training and coaching for you to choose from by Circles of Excellence. You can also benefit from many articles you’ll find when you scroll down their Cultural Clues, Do’s & Taboo’s Archives – A Series of Cultural Tips for Countries from A to Z.

Another Online Diversity Training from Diversity Resources worth checking.

If you want to find out how culturally competent you are now, here are the tools that can be helpful: Cultural Awareness Self-assessment Form and Cultural Competence Self-assessment Awareness Checklist.

Let’s summarize our learnings so far, shall we?

In Summary

As a future online CSR, you must always be aware that members of a culture other than yours may interpret your behavior in ways that haven’t occurred to you, because of their community’s own assumptions, traditions, or values.

Why? Because you’ll be communicating with a wide array of customers from all over the world on a daily basis once you start working.

Remember – customer service is all about effective communication. Cultural differences dictate the manner of communication.

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.

In other words, develop your cultural competence for customer service to better understand the different needs and expectations of diverse groups of customers. Boost your CQ!

Remember the cultural value dimensions which should help you understand the behavior of customers from other cultures, and adjust yours accordingly? Or not?

Don’t worry, we won’t write about each of them now. We know you’re tired of reading. So, here’s a possible easier way to revise all those important points.

Lean back and enjoy watching the following video. Although it wasn’t meant specifically for CSRs, it contains all the necessary details we’ve talked about for you to revise:

  • The concepts of culture
  • Cultural value dimensions
  • The effects of cultire on behaviors and communication
  • Development of intercultural competence
  • In short: How culture impacts business

Note: They may not be using exactly the same terminology for cultural value dimensions as we did here, but you’ll be able to recognize them all based on the short explanations and the examples they provide. We bet you’ll find revising more engaging this way.

Overwhelmed with new information? Probably.

Anyway, if you remember one thing from this lesson, remember this:

Think about your customers as individuals and treat them as you want to be treated when you are a customer.

Got it? Great! Now, show us what you’ve learnt.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Understanding at least some basic cultural differences is a must for every Customer Service Representative working in the online industry.

a. Yes. It’s absolutely necessary

b. No. Knowing about your own culture and how to speak English is more than enough

2. Cultural diversity does NOT impact customer service at all.

a. True

b. False

3. How should you as an Customer Service Representative approach your customers?

a. Always professionally and formally i.e. in the same way regardless of any differences among them. The ‘one size fits all approach’ always works in customer service

b. Professionally but treating each customer as a unique individual, respecting their diversity and adjusting your behavior to different demands of every situation

4. What does CQ stand for?

a. CQ means Customer Quotient and stands for the number of customers you have to serve in 8 hours of your working day

b. CQ means Customers Queuing and means that a Customer Service Representative has more than one customer to serve or several customer calls to answer at a time.

c. CQ stands for Cultural Intelligence (quotient), which represents a set of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to recognize, understand, reflect on, and adapt to cultural differences

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