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In 1992, then-US President George H.W. Bush was visiting Canberra, Australia. Safe and secure in his armored vehicle, he rode past a group of locals and gave a peace sign – the iconic V symbol formed by extending and spreading the index and middle fingers.
The problem was that Bush gave the gesture with his palm facing inward. Instead of a casual peace sign, he had effectively driven past them and given them the finger. Unbeknownst to Bush at the time, the inward-facing V sign is largely offensive to the Australians as well as the British – and he’d given it to them while he was a guest in their country.
As business becomes more and more of a global undertaking, the importance of understanding cultural differences between various groups also becomes evermore important. The owner of a small business just 20 or 30 years ago knew that he or she would only be doing business in their particular region. Today, the internet means that same business owner could be doing business across town or halfway around the world.
VoIP telephony makes it easier than ever to have these conversations. An international phone call was once prohibitively expensive. Telecommunication customers worried about their bills when calling regular long-distance; international was something reserved for absolute necessity.
Today, it is as simple as utilizing a VoIP product to connect with the other party via the internet. And voice is just the start. High definition audio and video go hand in hand as parties exchange information, transfer files, and collaboratively work on whiteboards. Borders are, as they have been for years now, something reserved strictly for maps.
Our Differences Are What Bring Us Together
The word ‘culture’ has over 450 definitions. That seems fitting since the definition of the term depends largely on who you ask – which is, in and of itself, a prime function of culture. However, most would agree that culture can generally be defined as a system of communication that makes society possible. It brings the science side of humanity together with the very human need to assimilate into one’s surroundings and establishes a common system of verbal and non-verbal behavior.
This tendency obviously has huge implications on how we see and interact with the world around us. And, in sales and customer service, one’s interaction with their world can mean the difference between success and failure. It means winning the deal or losing the deal. It means keeping the customer or losing the customer to a competitor.
Customer service and sales is now highly dependent on knowing and understanding not only the product being supported, but also the culture of those that are buying it in other parts of the world.
For example, Americans place their full confidence in contracts. The contract is the definitive voice when it comes to the stipulations and terms of an agreement between parties. If it is in the contract, then it is binding. However, something that is not in a contract is offered little to no actual protection.
To the contrary, In Japan, far less weight is placed on the contract. The focus in Japanese business is on the relationship itself. And, while negotiation is still a part of doing business, the Japanese are far more likely to negotiate the terms of the relationship rather than the business specifics themselves.
Another example is sound.
The West is highly sensitive to silence. An American on the phone with a customer service representative can become uncomfortable or agitated if that representative goes for long periods without speaking; regardless of whether the agent is looking at a customer record or even rendering technical support. Yet in Japanese and other Asian cultures, silence is perfectly acceptable, and even preferable to mindless chit-chat.
As a result of their discomfort with silence, Americans will oftentimes use other noises and sounds to fill in silences when opening or holding a conversation. These sounds, such as laughs and filler statements like “umm” or “ohh” or even lighthearted jokes to lighten a mood can be seen as a distraction at best or even disrespectful in the worst scenarios.
Various cultures also have very fluid relationships with time. This is especially important to understand when an appointment is made; regardless of whether it is a sales or a support call.
Take, for example, 10:00 am.
There is a saying in America that goes “if you’re early, you’re on time and if you’re on time, you’re late.” Setting a 10:00 appointment with an American generally sets the expectation that contact will be established shortly before 10. If the phone were to ring at 10:01, it’s perfectly possible for that phone call to be seen as having been late.
This is not unlike the Germans’ relationship with time. To a German, 10:00 means 10:00:00.
However, in other parts of the world, time is simply a guideline. It’s really more of a suggestion. Schedule a meeting for 10:00 in Israel or Nigeria and the meeting may start at 9:40. It might also start at 10:37. It really depends on when all of the parties have gathered, greetings and pleasantries have been exchanged, and the participants are ready to discuss the business at hand.
Also of note:
- In Kenya, the number 7 is bad luck and to be avoided at all costs, even though it as seen as lucky in the US and regarded as magical in Benin.
- 4, in Japan, sounds like “death” and should not be used whenever possible.
- Avoiding eye contact with a speaker is respectful in India. It is a sign of disrespect in America.
- Americans write dates by using MM/DD/YYYY while Europeans use DD/MM/YYYY. A rush delivery ordered in the wrong format could cost you a deal.
It may be worth learning the standardized NATO phonetic alphabet. This is a global standard used to spell out letters in order to ensure clarity. Accents and other cultural differences can lead to mistakes when using something that isn’t universally accepted. For example, ‘P’ sounds like ‘B’ in Arabic. ‘M’ and ‘N’ also sound sound very similar. ‘C like cat’ might not work for the person who doesn’t spell ‘cat’ with your definition of ‘c’. Using the global standard of ‘alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, etc….’ could be immensely helpful to an agent communicating in a situation that is being impeded by these differences.
Cultural Sensitivity in an Age of Global Sales and Support
We live in a very interesting time. Every day, it gets easier to see that the global village is becoming more and more of a reality. VoIP and cheap communication has been instrumental in tearing down the boundaries that kept us out of touch with the rest of the surrounding business world; thus closing the doors to critical market opportunities. Yet, even though global communication is at an all-time high, cultural differences are not disappearing. In fact, some could argue that cultures are fighting harder to hold on to those things that make them unique; thus amplifying the impacts of gaffes and missteps.
Some companies choose to treat the globe as one large market, with no allowance made for regional or national differences. Others will adapt their message, their product, and their interactions for the area they are in; they will use a completely separate approach in China to the one they used in Ecuador, for example. Extensive research goes into making these decisions prior to the execution of a cultural strategy.
No matter which direction your research shows will serve your company the best, marketing and supporting your product or service by phone demands that you work to cut through and minimize the cultural noise in your interactions. Voice communication does not lend itself to the non-verbal cues that give context to the rest of a conversation. Avoiding that trap and enhancing the understanding that your sales and support departments have with global cultural differences will make your call center more productive and reduce the risk of a gaffe that could cost your company months in recovery time and millions in sales.