What we can learn from customer service cultures around the world
Catherine Heath | January 17, 2019
It’s interesting to observe how customer service expectations vary around the world, depending on which culture you're in. Certain traditions and conventions need to be observed in some places – for example, always saying “bonjour” in France – if you hope to have a trouble-free experience.
Although globally customer service is trending towards automation, we still have many opportunities for a one-to-one interactions with a service person in our daily lives. That could be dining in a restaurant, filling up at a gas station, ordering a drink in a bar, shopping in a retail store, picking up groceries, ordering a cut of meat at the butcher’s, buying bread at the baker’s, or checking in with an airline.
That means we have to participate in and interpret sometimes ambiguous social rituals – a process that becomes more difficult when we leave our native culture.
Cross-cultural customer service
In-person customer service experiences only increase when we travel, and that also means we’re likely to encounter some behavior that puzzles us. That may be one reason why people in general hold very strong opinions on the quality of customer service in different countries. For example, people are often vocal about accusing the French of terrible customer service, while Japan and the US are praised as hospitable.
Cultural context shapes our expectations of the service we receive in reality. Strauss and Mang were the first researchers to investigate the role of culture in the context of services. They found that customers travelling with the exact same airline gave different satisfaction ratings, depending on which country they were from. The norms and values of the society in which the service is created and delivered strongly determines the expectations of both the customer and the provider.
That means a native UK customer and native US customer may have the same service experience, but the UK customer ends up feeling more satisfied. This is because they expect a lower quality service. But it can work the other way, too. Customers used to being left alone can feel overwhelmed and displeased by the amount of attention paid to them by American service workers, for instance.
Now we’ll look at some of the cultural differences in customer service around the world.
1. United States
First, we’ll examine the United States. Southern hospitality is world-famous, while New Yorkers, on the other hand, are famous for being less friendly. In general, non-Americans consider the US to have good standards of customer service, and Americans tend to have higher expectations of customer service. Restaurant servers are typically friendly and helpful. They will greet you enthusiastically, make small talk, and send you off with a “Have a nice day!”
This friendliness is often because American servers have to work hard for their money. Usually, low-paid service workers are relying on being compensated by customer tipping, so they are more proactively friendly to their patrons. Americans are well-known for their strongly enforced restaurant tipping culture, with a tip of around 20% being the usual reward for good service.
Unfortunately, the friendliness of American servers sometimes has the British on edge, a manner which they consider overbearing and insincere. In the UK, by contrast, an optional tip of around 10% is typical. The service charge is often included in the bill, but it doesn’t go to the individual server.
Businesses in the USA also have generous returns policies, where it’s possible to return purchases without the receipt – often even if the item has been opened. Amazon in the USA accepts all returns, if your item is broken or otherwise unsatisfactory. They even send you a replacement item for free. In other places such as Europe, you have to appeal directly to the product brand, and even then you might not get a fix.
Now we’ll turn our gaze to Europe, and explore what people think of French customer service. Famous not least for wine, food, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, France is the most-visited country in the world – while Paris is the most-visited city in the world. 10% of French GDP comes from tourism (30% from foreign tourists, and 70% from domestic), but despite the popularity of France itself, French hospitality sometimes seems to leave a little to be desired.
Customers the world over complain of the perceived “rudeness” of the French – servers who seem unhelpful, and apparently refuse to ever apologize. But is there a little more to this stereotype than meets the eye? It seems that the experience might be quite different in the luxury industries, though, where they know how to treat customers well. How many of the problems stem from embedded cultural differences, rather than objectively “bad” customer service?
Things were bad enough for the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Committee to launched a campaign urging the city's service industry to improve its service to tourists. In 2013, it sent out 35,000 pamphlets to waiters, hoteliers, and taxi drivers, containing tips on how to better deal with foreign tourists. The campaign was so popular they had to print another 20,000 pamphlets – but it wasn't well-received everywhere.
The fundamental tension with French hospitality could be that most workers in France are highly specialized in their respective professions. For example, a restaurant waiter is unlikely to be working at a temporary job, unlike in other countries such as the US and UK. That means they expect to be treated as experts by customers.
In France, the customer is not always right. Servers are on an equal footing with the customer, unlike in other nations. There is a greater burden on customers in France to take pains to be a good customer. For example, you must greet everyone you encounter in service with “bonjour”, before asking for what you want. It’s also expected that you at least attempt to speak in French, despite the fact that servers most likely understand English. Treat the individual serving you with respect and dignity.
You couldn’t get a bigger contrast in customer service than between France and Japan. Japanese customer service is a big attraction for tourists, and is often celebrated as among the best in the world. It can be distinguished from other countries in a number of ways.
The Japanese people strive to serve wholeheartedly. Shopkeepers and restaurant owners often greet customers loudly and enthusiastically with “irasshaimase”, the Japanese word for welcome. It’s very common for shopkeepers to escort customers out of the store. You don’t have to pay top dollar to experience top-quality customer service in Japan. In Japan, the majority of people are unforgiving, and will take their business elsewhere after one bad experience of customer service.
Japanese customer service is based around the term ‘omotenashi’, which means “to wholeheartedly look after guests”. Omotenashi in turn is based on the idea of “ichi-go ichi-e”, which means “one time, one meeting” – you should make every encounter as good as it possibly can be. There is a strict social protocol for how customers and guests should be treated.
Of course, not everyone is so appreciative of Japanese hospitality. They dislike how much Japanese customer service revolves around strict protocols, and they find this approach inflexible. In contrast to the US, where customers can ask the server for changes to a dish, in Japan these requests are likely to be declined.
4. United Kingdom
Now we’ll look at another country which is famous for its cold customer service – the United Kingdom. Although the UK had the highest customer satisfaction rates in Europe in 2016, the British are known the world over for being politely but firmly reserved.
In the UK, customers generally appreciate it when customer service workers leave them alone – unless they specifically ask for help. As a result, being available in a timely manner to help a customer is more important than actually offering to help in the first place.
In restaurants, it’s also not that common for servers to have small talk with customers. Transactions are frequently conducted without a single word being spoken by either party. It’s customary for the waiter to ask if the meal is alright, but even if there’s a problem, customers rarely complain. They will, however, never return to the business, and moan about the awful experience to all their friends instead.
As with any country, there are huge regional differences in UK customer service, despite the relatively small size of the country. For example, Londoners are well-known for their brusque demeanors, while people in the North have a reputation for being more friendly and approachable.
As a culture in general, the British are uncomfortable with service roles. People often feel awkward being waited on, and it’s important not to treat servers as inferior. Sometimes, this attitude might result in service that fails to impress – but is never openly challenged. The quality of customer service tends to correlate with the amount one is willing to pay. In cheaper fast food restaurants and budget supermarkets, the service is usually brisk and curt (the emphasis being on staff serving as many customers as quickly as possible). In the more upmarket restaurants and supermarkets, you’ll tend to get a politer but still reserved form of service.
If you must complain in the UK, make sure you do it apologetically and indirectly, or you will be considered extremely rude. The British are well-known for their thoroughly indirect way of communicating.
Let’s take a look at another European country. Germany is one that also seems to come up short when it comes to customer service.
Many people don’t like the service in Germany, where servers aren’t afraid to challenge the customer. It’s also not necessarily required for the staff to be nice to you. Businesses consider that they are doing you a favor by serving you, and don’t typically think that the customer is right.
Nevertheless, German customer service came second for customer satisfaction in 2016, behind only the UK. So why are some customers unhappy? Perhaps some of this can be explained by the fact that Germans view many international social customs (like smiling) as being “insincere”, favoring directness instead. It's nothing personal, just a cultural difference.
It’s more traditional in Germany to allow customers to shop in peace, and if you want to know something, it’s up to you to find someone to ask. The expectation is similar in the UK. It also helps if you can speak basic German.
Finally, we’ll examine a another country with a good reputation for customer service – the land of maple syrup, ice hockey, and Ryan Gosling
Canada has been officially voted as having the best customer service in the world, and Canadians are known the world over for being extremely “nice”. When I was in Toronto, you couldn’t beat the friendliness of everyone we met in service, and they also didn’t seem to care much about following the rules (in a good way).
For example, a good-natured bus driver stopped by the side of the road, and picked us up so we didn’t have to struggle further through knee-deep snow. Not a single bus driver would let us pay for our fare. And on the flight over, the attendants were extremely warm and friendly, encouraging passengers to move to the seat they’d prefer on the nearly empty flight.
Canada has a relatively high minimum wage (the lowest is $9.45 in Quebec) for restaurant service workers, and many servers make lots of extra money in tips. Maybe this means they are usually in a good mood.
One bank in Canada thanked its customers with an “Automated Thanking Machine”, dispensing gifts ranging from a group of family passes to Disneyland, throwing the first pitch at a Blue Jays game, to a plane ticket to Trinidad for one woman to visit her sick daughter.
Of course, customer service is delivered by individuals, who cannot be pigeonholed by specific characteristics. At the same time, we can observe some general differences in customer service culture across countries. This is reflected in the fact that, when we travel, most of us naturally adapt ourselves to different cultures. We also tend to accept that there will be some concessions we need to make, in order to get ourselves served successfully.
What we can learn from a place like Japan is that customers appreciate tightly constructed customer service rituals – it conveys respect, and honors the customer. However, these rituals must be balanced against the unique needs of the customer in real-time. Customer service must be professional, but also tailored to the individual’s needs (which is more the case in places like the US). These two different approaches to delivering service are nonetheless complementary.
When interacting in cultures foreign to our own, it's very likely that miscommunication will happen. As a service worker, try to be as clear as possible in setting out expectations with customers. Customer service professionals must be dedicated, well-compensated, and have long-term career prospects. Sometimes, a bit of small talk is the difference between a sterile transaction, and a human experience that makes someone’s day.
As a customer, familiarize yourself with the common customs of the country you’re in. Understand product returns policies clearly before committing to a purchase. Start polite and friendly right off the bat, and don’t expect servers to bow down to your whims.
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