Born in Germany, having lived in Scotland, England and the Netherlands and having designed customer care comms in over 20 languages, cultural differences are part of my everyday life.

And I’m sure it’s the same for you, too.

Almost every company now sells to people from many different cultures; this may be particularly true here in Europe. 74 percent of customers will buy more if customer support is provided in their language (source), and support teams are increasingly hiring for language skills. At the time of writing, there are 761 open positions for multilingual customer support reps — and that’s just on one of the specialist job sites, not even counting the SD job board.

Thing is, your users’ heritage affects more than the language they speak.

It also colours their relationships with your products — and their expectations of support.

This article explores

  • Some key research into cultural biases and assumptions,
  • How they play out in customer conversations, and
  • The best approach to emails from customers whose background may differ from yours

Cultural biases and assumptions

Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede found 6 dimensions in which cultures may differ:

  1. Power distance
  2. Individualism
  3. Masculinity
  4. Uncertainty avoidance
  5. Long term orientation
  6. Indulgence

Some are more self-explanatory than others, so let’s look at what they mean.

Power distance refers to the degree of inequality which the population of a country considers normal. In high power distance countries, hierarchies are ubiquitous and people generally understand and accept “their place”. In contrast, countries with a low power distance share power more equally — leading to “flat” hierarchies and different terms of engagement.

The dimension of Individualism describes whether the culture is about standing out from the crowd or fitting into the group. Is it OK to disagree with others in public? Do people tend to dress similarly? Is “tall poppy syndrome” a thing — known as “maaiveldcultuur” in Dutch and “Janteloven” in Danish?

Masculine cultures are characterised by strong, traditional gender roles. The more masculine a society, the more men and women are expected to be different from each other. Competition plays a bigger role than in feminine cultures, where emotional gender roles are less black and white, and winning is less important.

The degree of uncertainty avoidance determines if a culture is kinda happy-go-lucky — or if safety and certainty are highly prized, for example through pension savings and civil service employment.

Long-term orientation is about preparing for the future and accepting change as a basic fact of life. Short-time oriented cultures take more guidance from the past and don’t embrace change as easily.

And finally, indulgence is to do with how much restraint a culture shows. Are public displays of affection, wealth, emotion OK? Do people act on impulse, do they cherish freedom and friendship? Or is there a prevailing sense that life is hard and you have to do your duty — to “keep calm and carry on”?

While all of these factors can play out in customer support conversations, power distance is a particularly important one.

That’s because in high power distance cultures, the customer is king. If you’re both from a high power distance country, then you’ll treat the customer with the special respect they demand. However if you’re from a culture with a low power distance and the customer is from a high power distance culture, this can lead to conflicts: the customer will expect to be treated like royalty, while you’ll treat them almost like an equal.

So, if we know all this, how can it help us to have better support conversations?

Well, here’s what UNESCO says:

The success of intercultural dialogue is dependent on the ability to listen with empathy

The keyword here is ‘listen’ — which points us in the direction of language.

Most of the cultural differences I’ve listed will shine through in what people say or write, and how they say it.

Here are a few examples:

  • Apologising is particularly sensitive to cultural backgrounds;
  • Acceptable forms of address differ widely — a simple “Dear Mrs Smith” can come across as correctly formal or cold, while “Hi Alex” can be seen as positive and friendly vs. too intrusive;
  • Even culturally determined intonation patterns (sentence melodies) within variants of the same language can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

And these cultural and linguistic differences affect what is seen as customer support best practice in a given culture.

How cultural expectations of good support play out in everyday conversations with users

Simplification can be a useful tool for structuring the complexity of cultural differences. That’s why the following examples will refer to trends in countries rather than cultures. Let’s bear in mind that most countries are multicultural in themselves, and that individuals may not always follow such trends.

Rule number one: be polite. But what kind of polite?

What’s considered polite is one of those things that heavily depend on culture.

For example, I moved from the UK to the Netherlands last year.

And I was in for a bit of a culture shock.

One key component of Dutch culture is “bespreekbarheid” — ‘speakability’ (source.

Basically, this means that it’s OK to talk about most things in public. There are very few taboo topics — the finer details of one’s financial situation being one of them.

Bespreekbarheid also underpins the proverbial Dutch directness. Instead of “how may I help you?”, people will ask you “what do you want?” If you want something, you state those goals directly: no need to preface that with all the ins and outs of how you arrived at those goals. This also means that you’re expected to ask for help if you need it. Others aren’t all that likely to proactively offer it if you don’t ask.

In brief, Dutch culture has an underlying sense that truth can be more important than empathy — and it’s other people’s fault if the truth offends them.

Compare that to the British version of politeness that I had been immersed in for years: “politeness is about minimising offense”.

Could the difference be any starker?

British politeness is all about avoiding things that other people might not like. It’s about showing empathy, building rapport and respecting people’s privacy, even in difficult situations. This leads to the proverbial British indirectness — because using indirect language is a fabulous way of keeping things “off the record.

Perhaps this helps explain why (English-speaking) Tripadvisor reviews of Amsterdam restaurants are peppered with complaints about impolite staff.

So with all these differences, how can we make sure we give a great experience, even though we don’t know much about our customer’s cultural background?>

To help with this, I’ve brought you a case study. It’s a simple email exchange.

Case Study: Cultural context can lead to loaded messages — and you might not even be aware

As a bit of background to this exchange: it took place in summer 2018, just after the GDPR hit. A European software user (let’s call her Annabelle) gets in touch with support. The company is based in the US:

Initial customer query

Subject: Delete my account

Hi there,

I don’t think your service is right for me and would like to have my details deleted from the system, please.

Thanks, Annabelle

(Note how the request is in plain English, using the word “delete” twice — in the subject line and in the email.)

Here’s the reply:

Re: Delete my account

Hey Annabelle,

Thanks for reaching out. Your free trial closed so you are all set. Why don’t you feel our service is right for you? I’d love to chat to see if we can help!

Best regards,
Dave
Customer Care Manager

(The problem: she’s not all set. Instead, she feels as if Dave is ‘mansplaining’ the meaning of “free trial” to her — and trying to set up a sales call by asking why she wanted to cancel.)

The conversation goes on:

Re: Re: Delete my account

Hi Dave,

Have my details been deleted? I do know that my account has been inactive since the end of the free trial, but I want it to be deleted.

Thanks, Annabelle

(Note how the word “deleted” appears twice in the final paragraph, with the quite forceful phrase “I want it to be deleted” making the request crystal clear.)

Re: Re: Re: Delete my account

Hey Annabelle!

Yes your account has been completely deleted from our system. If you need anything else let me know!

Best regards,
Dave
Customer Care Manager

Why did that have to take 4 emails?

Clearly, Dave wasn’t aware of the conversation happening in Annabelle’s world.

In the summer of 2018, Annabelle was immersed in media reports about the upcoming changes to data protection law. Governments and businesses made an effort to educate people about their data rights, with “the right to be forgotten” and “subject access request” receiving lots of attention.

Had Dave been aware, he’d been able to put Annabelle’s email in context.

And, had he been aware that Annabelle’s culture values directness, thoroughness and an eye for detail, he might not have responded in a way that suggested pushback on his part.

Here’s the thing: he probably could have known if he’d made an effort to look up Annabelle’s profile.

But let’s assume he had nothing more to go on than just Annabelle’s email. How could he have done better?

4 steps to communicating better with customers — from any culture

  1. Read the entire email twice.
  2. Complete these sentences:
    – “This customer wants me to [action words used by the customer].”
    – “I can help them feel good about our company by also [implied or emotional need of the customer].”
  3. Take the actions you’ve identified.
  4. In your reply, use the exact same words as the customer to describe what you’ve done. If they wrote “delete”, write “delete”. (If you can’t do exactly what they’ve asked you to do, say so — and what you’ve done instead.)

Point 4 is the crucial bit.

It’s really quite simple. Thing is, it’s not easy.

It requires that we pay attention, that we do emotional labour. If you’re using the customer’s own words to describe what they want, you’re already 75% of the way. If you can go one step further and interpret what else the customer needs to feel good right now, you’re golden.

We’ve all learned to vary our word choice to improve our style, but that rule doesn’t apply here. Using the customer’s language consistently can lead to true light bulb moments.

This article is based on my interactive workshop at Support Driven Expo Europe 2019 in Belgrade. Download a summary of my slides below.


About Sabine: I help purpose-driven companies build great customer relationships. My journey in customer care and support started at LEGO Group, where I started & led the global Consumer Service editorial team. Later, I trained and advised over 70 iconic brands as Service Communications Manager at a London agency. A wholehearted global citizen, I now support clients from Mallorca to New Zealand from my new home in Amsterdam.

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