Worldwide Customer Service Takes Cultural Sensitivity

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When something goes wrong with a product or service a customer has just paid for, it’s likely to be a cause of distress and frustration, and the chances are very high that he will carry that baggage into his interaction with the provider’s contact center agents when he calls. Stress levels could climb even higher when that agent is based in a foreign country, as is often the case in modern customer service scenarios.

The challenges are huge for companies that operate overseas contact centers. They need to navigate regional differences, such as language, laws, and cultures, while still trying to maintain a high standard of customer service across geographic boundaries.

To do so, companies need a consistent approach at a high level that allows for flexibility to accommodate the many regional differences that are sure to arise.

“When looking to offer international customer service, brand consistency is important. Yet it’s equally important to acknowledge and plan for cultural differences across borders,” says Daniel Foppen, senior principal product manager at Oracle Service Cloud.

He advises that companies start by finding a single platform that can fulfill their global customer service needs. “By administering all of your local customer service software interfaces in one place, your company can deliver consistent experiences,” he explains. The benefits, he adds, can include increased productivity, improved agility, lower total cost of ownership, and consistent reporting.

“You’ll be able to quickly roll out new processes, support new product launches, add new innovation, and make other updates,” he says.

Foppen also says that collaboration between regions is essential and suggests that companies establish a group of representatives from each country where they do business to meet regularly to share ideas and discuss new initiatives.

However, Foppen also acknowledges a large caveat to this approach: the individual needs of each country. Because these vary, he says, it is “of utmost importance to have a platform that allows for flexibility within reason.”

Among the variables are the channels used for customer service interactions, which can differ sharply from one country to the next. China, for example, “is years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to messaging,” he says. “When it comes to customer service, WeChat is quickly becoming the sole service channel in China.”

In such situations, Foppen suggests that companies arm their local teams with the flexibility to deliver customer service via the most popular platforms in that specific country. In fact, companies should allow for experimentation at the local level in countries that are more technologically advanced, he says.

Rebecca Wettemann, vice president at Nucleus Research, says that companies should have “a consistent structure that supports your overall brand goals for customer service,” but, echoing Foppen, make sure that structure allows for “flexibility at the regional or country level to account for what may be different demands in a marketplace.”

She adds that some organizations will have “top-level objectives” for customer service but should leave some choices—such as which channels to use and what qualifies as acceptable time for resolution—up to regional teams.

For technology specifically, Wettemann suggests “a cloud solution where you can have specific instances that can be configured for a particular user group or a particular customer audience while keeping the common structure on the back end.” She also notes that as channels evolve, companies will need to respond accordingly, making the process an iterative one.

Yet even as certain parameters will be flexible, one should be consistent across the board: training. Companies that are most successful at maintaining a high standard of customer service across geographic boundaries manage training and content from a central point, says Ian Aitchison, CEO of the Asia-Pacific region at COPC, a provider of consulting services and software, training, and certification for customer experience management. “One of the big pitfalls is when companies leave training up to each individual country. That’s when different levels of service come out because of the inconsistency in the way that training is delivered,” he says.

Managing customer-facing knowledge is another key concern, Foppen says. “It should be the foundation of any customer service strategy,” he says. “You can convey a lot of your brand and culture through your knowledge base.”

For this reason, he maintains that it is important for companies “to invest in local resources that can manage and maintain the local knowledge base.”

Those responsible for managing knowledge bases at the local levels should maintain close contact with their peers in other countries, he says, and companies should use a central knowledge management solution that can scale so that they can react quickly when a new article is written or an existing one is updated.

Experts are quick to point out that the majority of what goes into good customer service will be the same regardless of geography. “Eighty percent of what you do…to deliver great customer service is transferable across any culture,” says Brad Cleveland, senior advisor and founding partner at the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI). Included in that 80 percent, Cleveland says, are forecasting workloads, routing contacts to the right places, and ensuring that customers don’t end up waiting in long queues.

Wettemann also notes that globalization is homogenizing customer service expectations. “To a certain extent, [the different expectations of customer service are] flattening as we become more globalized; we expect the same customer service no matter where we go,” she notes.

“Once you get really good at knowing how to deliver fast, effective service [and] how to really solve problems for customers, you can apply that anywhere,” Cleveland adds.

LOCAL OR LONG DISTANCE

Companies planning to deliver customer service in a new geography all face the same critical decision: Should they set up their own operations, or should they partner with an outsourcer with established operations there already?

Timothy McDougal, managing director of U.S. customer operations at Deloitte Consulting, recommends a “build versus buy” framework for the decision. Within that framework are a number of factors that enter into the decision-making process. For one, organizations should assess their familiarity with the country in question, including whether they have access to the labor market to hire the appropriate personnel.

“It makes sense to have speakers that know the language to be able to talk to customers,” he says.

The second factor for organizations to consider is the expected volume a new country is going to generate. If the country in question will account for a minimum of 10 percent of the company’s volume, then a build approach makes the most sense, McDougal says. If it represents less than that, then a company should consider partnering with an outsourcer “that could help them enter the market [and] understand the risks, the nuances of that location.”

Time is a third factor, McDougal says, especially considering that building one’s own operation can take between 12 and 18 months. “Jumping into a new location or a new region needs to be a thoughtful exercise,” he says. “If you have time, there’s no reason why you can’t build, but if you don’t have time, then it really does force your hand into a smaller subset of options.”

Kyle Kennedy, president and chief operating officer at COPC, zeroes in on the element of cost. “As companies look at whether or not they should open up their own shop or get a third-party partner to help support them, they have to think about cost; they have to think about their own expertise; [and] lots of times they have to think about their infrastructure capabilities,” he says. “Setting up a customer service center—between the hardware and software; the real estate; [and] the people investment of being able to recruit, hire, and train—is a significant investment. They have to really consider their capabilities to be able to execute on all of those things and take on those costs and then determine whether or not they should do it themselves or outsource.

“The cost model, the criticality of the things that you’re trying to accomplish in the region, and the strategic nature of the business would drive you to determine whether you have to do it yourself or leverage a partner,” he continues.

For Aitchison, the decision boils down to two factors: risk and control. Under the umbrella of risk, he includes overall cost as well as logistical challenges, such as establishing a brick-and-mortar location; recruiting and hiring; and implementing the requisite technology. As for control, he notes that “there’s a level of control that you want around your own business,” and that companies should consider “how much they want to control their own people.”

Should companies decide to go with an outsourcer, there are many capable companies around the world that offer this service, experts agree, but choosing one will require some some work, as many factors need to be considered.

Kennedy suggests that companies consider the outsourcer’s ability to recruit, hire, and train personnel; provide operational support; handle interactions across multiple channels; and manage staff appropriately during high-volume periods. Companies should also evaluate the outsourcers’ performance improvement and reporting capabilities.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into making those determinations because some companies need hundreds if not thousands of people to support them when they enter another geography in a major way,” he says. “It’s a tall task to evaluate partners or several partners in remote regions…but being able to go in and audit those companies and being able to evaluate them thoroughly before making a final determination is really important if you’re going to select an outsourcing partner.”

For McDougal, there are four factors that go into evaluating an outsourcer. First is how that outsourcer fits into the company’s overall customer service strategy. The company should have a strategic reason or reasons for using that particular outsourcer, such as access to a language or filling in gaps in knowledge, skill, or capabilities. The second factor is breadth of service. He suggests that companies choose an outsourcer with global reach that can provide access to multiple markets and/or languages. The third factor is cost, and the fourth is industry knowledge. He advises companies to select an outsourcer that specializes in the company’s industry or has at least some experience working with similar clients.

“If I’m choosing an outsourcer, I want them to be part of my strategy, I want them to have a global reach, and I want them to understand the industry I’m in and some of the regulatory issues,” he says.

Aitchison agrees, saying that to evaluate an outsourcer, a company “would be looking at things like previous experience in that market and with the type of products and services that you deliver.”

Then, companies should evaluate whether the staff provided by the outsourcer has “a level of affinity with the product or the service you are providing.” This affinity, he explains, “is more important than it might sound. It is quite often misunderstood when companies are just looking at the price of setting up with an outsourcer rather than looking at what type of people are going to be working on their businesses.”

Aitchison notes that a number of different models can be used for setting up global operations: Some businesses might set up their own contact centers, others might rely entirely on outsourcers, and still others might use a combination of the two. “There’s no right or wrong in any one model; each model depends entirely on what the business feels is the best fit for its culture,” he says.

MAINTAINING COMPLIANCE

Complying with all applicable local laws is challenging enough for companies at home; it’s even more so when operating internationally. With the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) having just taken effect in May, compliance is top of mind for companies across industries.

McDougal suggests that companies seek input from a variety of sources, including law firms familiar with the region and any vendors—telecom vendors in particular—with which they will work in the region. He adds that companies that choose to set up their own operations in a country as opposed to working with an outsourcer “are going to need a lot of expertise” in areas like human resources, IT, and payroll.

Kennedy notes that many companies are implementing technologies that can help with compliance issues. “Obviously you have to understand what all your compliance issues are and what you’re required to do and build your systems and your training processes and education to deal with that, but then you need to have a really good quality system in place—one that is capable of identifying those compliance-critical errors and addressing them immediately at the agent level but also at the systemic level,” he says.

Aitchison adds that quality assurance processes and systems, including interaction recording, live interaction monitoring, and analytics, also play a role in maintaining compliance. “If we’re talking about contact center operations around the world, then your quality assurance process and being able to assess the critical compliance aspects is very important,” he says.

MICHAEL C. FINA MAKES IT WORK

While all of these considerations might seem overwhelming, putting them together into a workable business plan is not impossible. A case in point is the Michael C. Fina Recognition Company, a New York-based purveyor of luxury retail goods. The company has grown extensively over the years and now provides comprehensive corporate recognition and incentive programs to Fortune 500 companies worldwide.

Avaya IP Office Platform plus Avaya Contact Center Select with Avaya Agent Desktop were vital to its business plan and continued global expansion, particularly as it created a global, 24-hour, multichannel contact center.

Multichannel communications capabilities were especially important as the company expanded globally, according to Sheila Sheldon, its senior vice president of global operations. “We have a global footprint now that we didn’t have 15 years ago,” she says. “We are in 27 countries, and we service clients in over 150 countries. To enable us to do that, we rely very heavily on technology.”

The Avaya platform is also designed to enable the company to hand off calls and share data between its two main call centers in the United States and England and scale up to other countries as capabilities grow. “We are able to service a client regardless of where they have employees around the world,” Sheldon says.

And that’s the secret to having successful worldwide operations.


Associate Editor Same Del Rowe can be reached at sdelrowe@infotoday.com.

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