It’s Not Just Service With A Smile
Customer service is one of the hallmarks of any sound business strategy. When properly executed, it helps create a positive experience for customers leading to higher levels of satisfaction. Ultimately, that delivers better business outcomes.
Since returning to India, after almost two decades, I have had a few unsatisfactory and hair-raising interactions with local customer service representatives. I am led to believe that my situation is commonly referred to as cultural shock.
My interactions suggest that there is an appreciation for long processes, an acceptable level of ambiguity, a natural tolerance for errors, a strange fascination for delays and flagrant disregard for punctuality.
Now, I must admit that this conclusion seems harsh, but, as a customer I feel entitled to a certain degree of empathy, urgency and action. I don’t believe that these expectations are exorbitant. They are the common denominators of every customer service training manual and it is impossible that they were overlooked here.
Looking to turn my circumstance into a learning experience, I conducted some research on how cultural factors possibly influence the quality of customer service. After putting a few notes together, I thought that it would be worth sharing some of my findings here.
Culture draws more and more inclusive definitions from social scientists attempting to wrap their words around a subject that grows more complex with time.
Culture is a term used to define the social behaviour and norms found in human societies. It encompasses shared knowledge, language, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, religions, dress and habits of individuals in a collective.
Most populations maintain a national identity comprising of subsets of smaller diverse collectives. It’s also important to note that culture isn’t carved in stone. Globalisation, immigration and intermarriages are major contributors to cultural diversity today.
Why Culture Matters In Customer Service?
In customer service, the service encounter plays a key role in determining customer satisfaction. The service encounter is an interaction between a customer seeking a service and an employee assigned to providing that service.
Within the service encounter is the service script, a set of rules for predicting, interpreting, responding to and controlling the service encounter. Scripts constitute both verbal and non-verbal cues.
Service representatives use these scripts to manage and navigate service encounters, attempting to nurture them towards a positive outcome.
A disconnect usually occurs when both parties are influenced by dissimilar cultural traits leading to misaligned expectations and perceptions. This evidently reduces the effectiveness of certain service scripts. Misalignment could occur even with cultural subsets of the same national collective.
Obviously, having adapted to and absorbed newer cultural exposures, my expectations and perceptions shifted. And, this inadvertently led to a very frustrative experience, one that others close to me considered par for the course. They instead recommended adjusting to local idiosyncrasies.
However, I wasn’t convinced. There has to be a better alternative to simple acceptance of a status quo. There is nothing wrong with implementing practices that deliver a better customer experience, especially if they set the business apart.
Two questions need to be addressed :
- Would the same service standards at these companies be applicable to their global business units?
- Are we accepting that Indians are not worthy of superior levels of service?
Diving deeper, I stumbled upon comprehensive research led by prominent social psychologists who have worked extensively on explaining cross-cultural differences.
Enter Geert Hofstede
Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, is best known for developing one of the earliest frameworks for measuring cultural dimensions with a global perspective.
In 1965, Geert Hofstede founded the personnel research department at IBM Europe. Between 1967 and 1973, he executed a large-scale study across IBM’s worldwide subsidiaries. The study was aimed at uncovering the impact of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how those values later influenced behaviour.
He compared 117,000 IBM employee responses on the same attitude survey in different countries. In fact, this theory was one of the first quantifiable works that helped explain observed differences between cultures.
Hofstede’s analysis initially identified systemic differences on four primary dimensions – Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance and Femininity Vs Masculinity. In subsequent years, he added two more dimensions i.e. Term Orientation and Restraint vs Indulgence.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll concentrate on only three dimensions that I believe shed light on my predicament. I believe they are also imperative to what Indian companies need to address as they further integrate into the global ecosystem.
Power Distance : People in societies with high Power Distance (PD) accept an unequal distribution of power. They are hierarchical and maintain a top-down structure in society. Power tends to be centralized with people in lower stratas executing directions from the top.
There is high respect for rank and authority too. Employees display limited decision-making authority, often seeking approvals from their superiors.
Lower scores indicate more decentralized power distribution, participative forms of management, collaboration, dispersed authority and flatter hierarchies.
Uncertainty Avoidance : This dimension measures the degree to which people in a society are comfortable with risk, uncertainty, and unpredictable situations.
The higher the score, the more rules and regulations to help meet that uncertainty, building structures to address the unknown. Lower scoring societies accept a level of ambiguity and chaos. They consider uncertainty a normal feature of life.
Time Orientation : This dimension looks into how societies view time. It measures the degree to which every society maintains links to its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future.
Different societies assign different meanings to time. Long-term oriented societies (LTO) view time as infinite. For short-term oriented societies (STO), it is a scarcity. STO societies attach high value to time management while LTO societies consider it less important.
Societies with a high degree on this index focus on the future. They view adaptation and pragmatic problem-solving as a necessity. Lower scoring societies indicate strong ties to tradition and meeting social obligations.
Let’s have a brief look at Hofstede’s theory in practice according to 5 Dimensional Scores shown below.
Hofstede Scoring & My Disconnect
My expectations were influenced by western experiences and formative cultural elements over the years while my service providers were operating according to locally established norms.
India scores 77 for Power Distance, indicating an appreciation for hierarchy. Decisions are rarely taken without supervisory approval and this tends to lengthen process times. Customers in these societies expect resolutions to materialize through the chain-of-command and are prepared to wait. They may not like it, but, they are more accepting of it. However, this may change depending on the customer’s status in society.
By contrast, the US scores 40, indicating a preference for flatter hierarchies with a more informal, consultative management style between employees and managers. Employees are expected to be self-reliant, decisive and display initiative. Customers are prone to expect quick results without having to escalate matters.
India has a score of 40 for Uncertainty Avoidance indicating a higher acceptance for ambiguity and imperfection. The US scores 46. Although not substantially higher, it still indicates lesser appreciation for imprecision.
India is seen as a patient country where tolerance for the unexpected is high. People are comfortable settling into established routines without being compelled to taking action-initiatives. The US, on the other hand, has a higher tendency to expect structures in place to tackle unfamiliar situations.
Additionally, India scores 61 on Term Orientation, indicating a slower more persistent approach towards results, requiring people to adjust to circumstances. It is also possible that because of sheer numbers, the average customer is not considered valuable enough to expedite resolutions. Customers see the system as widespread and switching does not improve the situation.
The US, by comparison, scores 29 on this dimension indicating a greater need for swift results. This demonstrates the need for addressing customer concerns quickly. Customers have a choice and they are not afraid to execute it. They expect issues to be sorted out with a quick phone call or online chat. Visiting the business is seen as a last resort.
Whichever way you look at it, culture undeniably influences how expectations and perceptions are formed. This is very important, particularly in service organizations, as representatives need to adapt to the customer’s cultural influences in order to maintain an acceptable level of satisfaction.
As humans, our cultural intricacies are expressed in how we conduct ourselves in society. We exhibit behaviours instilled in us as a collective.
Our behaviors tend to adapt to new settings with increased exposure to other dominant cultural groups. Sometimes this happens by design and sometimes by compulsion.
When we look at things from a global perspective, it’s hard to escape the implication on outsourcing and offshoring. After all, India has been the recipient of several such projects. In these cases, if representatives do not follow the appropriate service script, quality is compromised.
What worries me more, is that Indian companies are happy to maintain the status quo without being disruptive, given what everyone else has taken for granted. However, as mentioned earlier, the population size and customer pool poses an impediment to this opportunity. Afterall, if customers are content to accept this as a benchmark for quality, why raise the bar?
I added a few more comparison charts for other countries in case the readers were interested. Credit – Hofstede Insights
Research Credits : (Chase, Jacobs, & Aquilano, 2004), (cf. Czepied, Solomon, Surprenant, & Gutman, 1985; Shostock, 1985; Surprenant & Solomon, 1987), (Stauss & Mang, 1999), (cf. Bateson, 2002; Harris, Harris, & Baron, 2003; O‟Connor & Adams, 1999; Smith & Houston, 1985), (cf. Fitzsimmons & Fitzsimmons, 2003; Jones, Moore, Stanaland, & Wyatt, 1998; Mattila, 1999), (Hamm 2007), (Hutzschenreuter et al., 2011), (Fisher and Ranasinghe, 2001; Slangen and van Tulder, 2009), Atlantic Marketing Journal, Hofstede-Insights, CFI, Mind Tools, Wikipedia, GeertHofstede.com, Userlike.com.
More information on the 6 dimensions is available here.