As you expand internationally, you need to broaden your customer service (and every other aspect of your business) to embrace the cultures of your new places of business. There are many ways of measuring and describing cultural differences, and you can learn a great deal from studying where your target country falls in Trompenaars’ Seven Dimensions of Cultural Difference

Even businesses that have not officially expanded internationally can benefit from cultural diversity training since new business can originate from anywhere in the online economy. In this 2-part post, I examine some of the practical issues companies encounter when delivering customer service in a different culture.

Customer service is just one part of the total customer experience

In international business, offering a good product is no longer enough to succeed. The total customer experience determines whether a customer makes that first purchase or returns after that first purchase. Even when your product outshines that of your competitors in the new country, those competitors have the edge over you in their ability to meet their local customers in their own cultural setting. 

Customers everywhere want the same things in the end: They want to feel that the businesses they favor value and respect them and want to build ongoing relationships with them. Various cultures differ in the signals that convey this sense to them. You must re-examine every aspect of your business in a new country, from your website’s colors and currency notation to your sales methods. Customer service before and after the purchase is another important area to improve. 

Learn cultural expectations

Cultural differences are most important when your company is communicating directly with customers. Since customers usually turn to customer service to solve problems, those differences can be a source of increased tension. 

A key to cross-cultural service, for any culture, is to remain flexible and open-minded. Train your team in active listening skills and the art of asking questions to uncover what customers really mean. 

Remember that other countries have demographic differences, just as the US does. Use your ideal customer profile to focus on the universal aspects of that national culture and the specifics of your target market within that culture. Trompenaars’ model is an excellent starting point, and the areas outlined below illustrate some of the practical applications.

Rules or relationships?

One of Trompenaars’ cultural “dimensions” is the continuum from “particularistic” cultures to those that value “universalism”. Universalist cultures (such as Canada, Germany, Sweden, and the US) expect everyone to live and be treated according to the same rules. In customer service, they expect you to get right to business with a minimum of conversation, valuing objective information and straight talk.

Particularist cultures value relationships above all. Examples include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. When dealing with customers from particularist cultures, pay special attention to small talk and relationship-building. Skipping those personal interactions may be perceived as abrupt and impolite. Particularist cultures favor businesses with which they have a long-standing relationship. Particularists can be very loyal. However, they expect preferential treatment and priority service in return for that loyalty.

Emotional or reserved?

Some cultures (e.g., Britain or Japan) value emotional restraint, and emotional displays are seen as immature, unprofessional, or irrational. Customers from these emotionally neutral cultures may indicate their own emotional responses only by subtle signals that customer service reps will need to watch for. Be aware that team members who show an excess of excitement or other emotions may put off customers. It is best to focus on objective information and arguments.

Other cultures value emotional demonstrations as part of what makes us human. Examples include Italy, Mexico and Spain. Emotionally expressive customers tend to be effusive in both positive and negative emotional displays, without meaning that they have made up their minds either way. When dealing with customers from these cultures, don’t under- or over-react to their emotional timbre. Avoid expressionless behavior on your part, being conscious that customers from expressive cultures may read a lack of emotion as secretive or uncaring.