Are There Cultural Differences in Customer Service?

Customer service makes our world go Are there cultural differences in customer service? 

Rewind to 1998 and it’s a scorching hot department store in the Balkans. I’m waiting for a sales assistant to notice me. She’s smoking a cigarette and animatedly re-telling the events of last night to a colleague. There’s lots of ‘I said/she said/I said/she said’. Finally she turns, points at me with her chin and says ‘Yes??’

I’m shocked by this level of ‘service’ and later say this to my local friend who looks surprised:  ‘Honey, this is Southern Europe! England has spoilt you – we don’t do ‘nicey-nice’ in shops here’.

It’s around this same time that BPA delivered its customer service training session to an international Hotel group’s call centre in Germany, where advisors were unconvinced about the suggested closing phrase: ‘We wouldn’t usually say ‘thank you for your call’ in Germany, it’s just not done here’.

Delivering training in the UK ten years later, and soft skills such as wishing the customer a good day at the end of a call, at times received a sceptical ‘that’s too Americanised. We don’t really do that here’.

Roll forward five years, and during a recent trip to the Balkans, I noticed how attentive yet still naturally relaxed sales assistants are now. Gone is smoking in stores, smiles have replaced the chin-point and there is a lot of ‘I’m here if you need help’.

In our BPA UK office, 98% of all German calls we evaluate for quality today contain the phrase ‘Danke schön für Ihren Anruf’ or, ‘thank you for your call’.

And you’ll be hard-pressed to hear an English call where the agent doesn’t wish you a ‘good day’ or a similar parting pleasantry.

Average is the new Bad

The truth is, good customer service isn’t an inherently cultural phenomenon. It’s a matter of: The Scale. On one extreme of The Scale, there is the bad service, the kind that is so unexpectedly poor that it shocks you so you tell your friends. On the other extreme is the fantastic service – the kind that is so unexpectedly great that it surprises you and, well, you tell your friends. And somewhere in the middle, shrouded in a cloud of easily-forgettable, not-much-happens-here average, there is the good service. Good = what we expect. The kind of service that happens every day. Good, solid, customer service. Nothing to talk about.

As companies up their stakes and improve service, it increases customer expectations, and therefore what was once perceived as Excellent slips towards the Cloud of Average on The Scale.

For example, had supermarket checkout staff offered to help pack your shopping twelve years ago, you might have been very surprised and rated this as fantastic service! Today, it’s the ‘done thing’ in all UK’s supermarkets, and as something we experience every week, it sits comfortably in our Cloud of Average. In fact, when it isn’t offered, we notice something is amiss and rate the service as less than good!

Whether a nation’s current Cloud of Average is a chin-shaking, cigarette-wielder or not, every customer in the world and at any one time will rate positively  an experience where they’re greeted with a genuine smile, a warm, personalised and attentive tone and a positive, helpful attitude.

For any customer service provider, seeing cultural differences as a reason to keep on providing the same average service is like saying ‘our customers don’t expect much more, they don’t know any better’, all the while their competitors are raising their own service levels and forcing the current perceptions of excellent, well into the new Cloud of Average. And so the old Average becomes the new Bad.

By: Milena Maric’, Research Team Trainer and Performance Manager at BPA Quality UK