Integrating Cultural Intelligence with Customer Service

Tourism Operators

In this presentation learn how to apply cultural intelligence to your customer service delivery.

Key learning outcomes:

  • Learn about the cultural intelligence framework
  • Miscommunication vs Misunderstanding
  • Understanding systematic vs Multitasking Customers
  • Customer service - key risk indicators
  • Customer service - desired outcomes

Integrating Cultural Intelligence with Customer Service

Integrating Cultural Intelligence with Customer Service

I'm Craig Shim from Alpha Crane Intercultural Specialists. In this presentation we're going to talk about how to apply cultural intelligence to your customer service delivery.

Customer service delivery scenario

Let's imagine that you're the CEO of a group of restaurants. Now it's a busy evening at your signature restaurant and there's a queue of people lining up outside the front door. You've just noticed that a well-dressed group of Asian business associates waltz on in past the queue and help themselves to a table that they assume to be vacant, and you're left wondering what's going on. My question for you is what happens next?

Well, that really depends on how much cultural intelligence you or your staff apply when you approach this particular situation. Now, this scenario is relevant to today's topic, which is all about how to apply cultural intelligence to your customer service delivery.

This presentation is part of a 3-part series that I have prepared for Business Moreton Bay Region and Innovate Moreton Bay. This series is all about being culturally inclusive in your business.

Now, the question that I asked earlier is what happens next? Well, it really depends on how much cultural intelligence, or how much cultural awareness that you or your staff have, and it could actually go into separate ways.

Things could go very well. For example, you approach the table, you approach these guests who have just walked in, and occupied a table that they assume to be vacant. You make them feel welcome. You explain what's going on. Perhaps invite them to wait in another part of the restaurant e.g the bar, and everything goes well. Now that's the ideal situation.

But in reality (and I've seen this a lot) there are plenty of cases where people with the best intentions of customer service get caught up because of some of these cultural differences. Instead, things turn out terribly. And we'll give some examples about that in a moment.

Cultural intelligence crucial for tourism operators

But first of all, I thought I'd share with you why is this important. Well, the topic of cultural intelligence and customer service is really important to anyone who operates within the tourism industry, and anyone who provides hospitality or retail services. Because the expectations of people from culturally different backgrounds will likely be very different from the expectations of your other customers.

For example, if you've got an international guest or visitor, or you've got a visitor who is Australian, but from a culturally different background or a culturally diverse background, their concepts of what constitutes good customer service is probably going to be heavily grounded in their cultural backgrounds.

And a couple of examples of this would be:

1. How we queue

In this case, clearly there was a queue outside of the restaurant and these Asian guests didn't queue up at all, they didn't even appear to notice the queue.

If you've ever been to any Asian countries, in fact, many countries around the world, where there is not the expectation or the norm of queuing, you can feel really out of place when you expect to line up to be served at, at the markets at a restaurant at a cafe.

And, everybody else. It just seems to be cutting in this is heavily culturally influenced, the concept of queuing. So that's an example of customer service expectations that can be very different.

2. Communication styles

Another example is communication types, or communication styles. How do you deal with situations where you need to deliver bad news or difficult news? In this case, as the owner of this restaurant, when you approach your customers, who are from an Asian background, and you need to politely tell them, sorry, but there is a line outside and sorry that this table is already reserved. How are you going to deliver that news? And again, we'll talk about that very shortly.

3. How we build rapport or trust

The third example is, how do we build rapport with each other? In other words, how do we build trust? As you know, the golden rule of customer service is to build a personal relationship or build a rapport with your customer. But how you can do that is really going to depend on what their cultural background is, not what your cultural background is.

The point I'm trying to make here is that, the whole concept, the whole notion of customer service or what constitutes good customer service is by no means universal. If you want to deliver good customer service to everybody, and in any situation, it is really important to understand cultural awareness and to have cultural intelligence.

Cultural Framework

But how can you do this? Well, I have developed a cross cultural framework in delivering customer service that I'd like to refer you to.

Customer service – key risk indicators

This triangle outlines what are some of the key risk indicators that your customer service isn't going so well when it comes to dealing with, or providing service to, people from culturally different backgrounds.

1. Absence of understanding

Now at the base of that triangle is the first risk, which is an absence of understanding. In other words, where there is cultural miscommunication or cultural misunderstanding. If you think back to this scenario, the assumption that you may have made is that how come these Asian visitors that have just ignored the cue and helped themselves to a table.

Why do they not understand that they need to cue. And in fact, in reality, what you or your staff may be thinking is going straight to a place of judgment, which is something along the lines of these people are so rude or they're so disrespectful to other customers who are already waiting. So here's an example of misunderstanding.

2. Customers are uninformed

When you get misunderstanding, that's when the next risk element comes along. The second line in this triangle is where you have customers who are uninformed. In other words, customers don't feel in control of the situation. They're not sure what to do, and quite often they will actually say, or think that they are being misinformed.

This is obviously a key problem that you want to avoid. At this point in time, I would like to point out that a lot of these scenarios, when you do have customers from culturally different backgrounds and they are behaving in a way that you really wouldn't expect of your customers, more often than not (it's not because they're intentionally trying to be rude or disrespectful) it's just simply the fact that they don't know what the expectations are that you may have of them.

In other words, what are the unwritten cultural rules that apply in this scenario, in this culture in Australia and queuing is a perfect example of that.

3. Frequent frustration

Now let's move up to the next level, which is the risk factor of frequent frustration. Now, this isn't just frustration of your customers, because you are not providing them service in the way that they would expect. It's also frustration of you and your team members. So that's not a great place to be in.

4. Customer dissatisfaction

Now, if you go up to the next level on this triangle, we talk about customer dissatisfaction. This is where at best customers feel that you have only just met their expectations. You haven't exceeded them.

You've simply met them. But at worst at this stage, they may actually feel very dissatisfied.

5. Customer becomes critic

If that happens, that's when we move to the top of this triangle, which is the risk that the customer becomes a critic. So at this point in time (at best) perhaps the customers leave us. They leave our restaurant and they don't continue business with us.

That may actually be the best scenario. But at worst, they actually become our vocal critics. And clearly this is a situation none of us want to be in when we are running a business.

Now that’s the first side of this framework that I have prepared, but the more important side is the flip side.

Customer service – desired outcomes

The flip side of this framework is to really have a look at what are the desired outcomes when you are delivering customer service to people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

1. Understanding

The first level of this triangle is about providing understanding. How do you understand the underlying needs and wants the motivations of your culturally diverse customer? And also them understanding what your motivations are when you are offering them customer service?

2. Informed

If you get this right, then we can move up to the next level of the triangle, which is about creating an informed customer. This of course is a really important thing when you're providing customer service to anybody of any cultural backgrounds, but it can get particularly tricky when you are dealing with people from cultural backgrounds. You do need to take into account what their preferences are when it comes to, how do you explain things, perhaps, even something as simple as language.

How do you explain something to someone, for whom English is not a first language? And then there are a whole lot of other things that you need to take into account at this stage.

3. Highly responsive

The next level on the triangle is how do you become intuitively responsive to the needs and the requests of your customer. But also how do you intuitively become responsive to some of those unsaid requests or needs that they may have.

4. Delight

Now, if you get that right, then you are able to move up to the next level of the triangle, which is about delighting the customer and moving them up the scale of satisfaction.

5. Advocate

And of course, when that happens, you move up to the very top of this pyramid, which is the situation where you find that your customers are not only loyal customers, but they are loyal advocates for you and for your business.

So this is the framework that I always use when I'm applying this to the coaching and the training that I provide to businesses that are involved, particularly in tourism.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding

Now, if there's one piece of advice that I could give you, not specific to this scenario, but which is kind of general advice that applies to anybody, regardless of what your business is in, it would be this. The greatest risk when you're providing customer service to people from different cultural backgrounds is really the failure to address cross-cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding.

So most customers, as I mentioned earlier, really don't intend to be discourteous, or disrespectful to you or to the other customers. But more often than not, there is a cultural misunderstanding happening. You may interpret their behavior a certain way, but they may have a completely different intent in their behavior.

The quick example in this case is that when those customers have walked into the restaurant, they probably didn't appreciate that, in Australia, you need to queue. From an intercultural perspective, there is an explanation for this, and we use cultural dimensions to explain those underlying motivations or behaviors of people.

Systematic vs Multitasking Cultures

The cultural dimension that I'd like to briefly explain here is the one that talks about time, and how we deal with time. So imagine that there's a line across your screen. On one side of this line are cultures that have a very strong emphasis on trading time in a very systematic fashion, and doing things one-by-one, or step-by-step, or systematically.

Down the other end of the spectrum, you've got cultures such as Asian cultures, Latin cultures, African, and Middle Eastern cultures, where the emphasis is not so much on getting things done systematically, but getting many things done at once. And we often refer to these as multitasking cultures.

Four your easy reference, think of the middle Australia sitting closer towards the sequential perspective of time end of the spectrum. So further along here, not all the way down the end, but further down towards that end. It doesn't matter where you as an Australian sit, what does matter, is the difference and where your customer sits on this line, which is right down the other end – where they have a preference for multitasking.

In the context of queuing, what this means is that if you're an Australian, it is a cultural norm that you queue up, and that the person who's serving you does so in a systematic fashion. You expect to wait until they have finished serving other people. And they will expect you to wait until they have finished serving other people. That is certainly the norm in Australia.

But I can guarantee you, it is not the norm around the world. So down the other end of the spectrum, you have those cultures such as in Asia, where the expectation is very different. The expectation in this case is that the person who is delivering customer service does many things at the same time. In other words, the maitre d, for example, could be doing a combination of things. They could be acknowledging people who are coming through the door, and at the same time they could be taking orders, or giving instructions to the floor staff. They could be doing a multitude of things at once.

Now, if you're from these cultures, your expectation is not only that the person who's delivering customer service is doing many things at once, but that you can kind of just come up to them and they will deal with you, or they will provide you that service as, and when they can do it.

Now, that is very shocking for them for that person, if they are in, for example, in Australian culture where people are queued up, and it seems very illogical and, and it can actually be quite uncomfortable as a result of this. They may or may not realise that there is an expectation to queue, and that is precisely what has happened in this particular scenario.

The biggest pitfall

I won't go into any more detail about that, but I'll just share with you this little tip here. The biggest pitfall is treating all customers the same. Just remember that when you are dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds, they are more than likely to have a very different perspective of customer service or what constitutes good customer service compared with your other customers.

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