future thinkers update

Service culture differences

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Deep-rooted cultural issues explain divergent customer service expectations across Europe  
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Personal service touch is not always welcome

Q: Aren’t attitudes towards customer service broadly similar across Europe ?

A: That is a common misconception but we have carried out extensive research into cultural differences which shows that clear cultural differences exist and there is a real risk of ‘culture shock’ if differences are not properly understood and services tailored accordingly.

Q: How do service expectations and preferences differ ?

A: For example some European nations including Italy, Spain and Romania prefer highly personalised service and to engage with a ‘real person’. By contrast, other nations including the UK and Denmark value efficiency and speed more highly. Some nations are less comfortable in disclosing personal data, even if the aim is to deliver a better service. Even simple things like whether people prefer a formal or informal form of address are culturally-bound. ‘Have a nice day’ will be acceptable in one culture yet will grate in another.

Q: Do neighbouring nations share the same beliefs and expectations ?

A: No. A key finding from our research is that geographical proximity is not a determining factor as to which nations share common cultural behaviour. For example Scandinavia is often regarded as a homogenous region in terms of cultural values etc - however we found more cultural similarities between Denmark and the UK than Denmark and its Scandinavian neighbours, while Sweden is more similar to Germany and Austria.

Q: Why do service expectations differ so much among nations and can you measure these differences ?

A: Expectations are culturally-bound and stem from deep-rooted value and belief systems which have evolved over centuries. We identified six crucial factors which contribute to shaping cultural values and expectations and we used these to create a ‘Cultural Lens‘ which gives unique insights into cultural differences and similarities within Europe.

We looked at where differences and similarities lie and created a framework. In simple terms, we plotted on an axis how similar or different European nations are to each other.

Q: What are the implications for customer service operations in Europe ?

A: Businesses which organise customer service operations on the basis of shared language or proximity may have to rethink their approach. Many global organisations have adopted a ‘one-size-fits-all‘ customer service model yet our research shows deep flaws in this approach. If they were to refocus their customer service operation according to our ‘cultural lens’ it could involve physical relocation of staff and resources, redrawing reporting lines, or a revised regime for training and standards.

Q: Any implications for performance metrics like Average Call Handing Times ?

A: Yes. Average Call Handling Times are widely used as a performance metric within customer contact centres yet the time customers expect to spend talking to an agent varies between cultures from two minutes to five. If an organisation counts two minutes as an efficient call, a supervisor might think the business was achieving a successful outcome if all agents achieved that. However, customers in some markets might feel short-changed by what they would regard as a rushed exchange.

Q: How will the rise of self-service solutions impact on customer satisfaction ?

A: Many organisations are turning to self-service solutions to reduce costs and there is often an underlying assumption that an identical self-service model can be applied globally. However we believe that it is a far from foregone conclusion that a universal self-service framework can be applied seamlessly across all nations and cultures. Customer expectations will be different depending on the culture you are serving.

Q: Are cultural differences relevant to technology-based self-service solutions ?

A: Yes because internet access is developing at different rates within Europe and different nations/cultures will adapt to using technology in different ways. For example, we identified a ‘Latin’ cluster comprising Spain, Italy and Romania, which expect highly personalised and longer phone calls and value speed and efficiency less. That means self-service solutions that harness technology to achieve greater speed and efficiency are likely to be less popular in these nations than in the UK, Denmark or Germany.

Q: Surely greater harmonisation within the European Union is reducing cultural differences ?

A: Our research does not support this theory. Cultural expectations stem from long-held and deeply rooted beliefs which means cultural change happens far more slowly than economic or political change.

Q: How can we improve understanding of cross-cultural issues ?

A:. We need to put ‘customer expectations’ back at the heart of discussions on customer service models and to ensure cultural differences are fully understood.

For more information on the issues raised in this update, please email outi.dorsen@intersperience.com

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