Q&A: Managing Across Cultures
| Published: July 31, 2013 | Comments
Earlier this month, Jane Finn shared her humorous story about the unexpected moments that inevitably happen when you’re training agents to deliver service in a culture/country different from their own. Many of you resonated with the story, and commented via social media that you could relate.
Having worked all over the world, with many different cultures, Jane has several such stories to share. And she has a lot of insight to share on cultural differences, the global landscape, and managing across cultures. I had the chance to interview her on those topics last week, and her answers were both insightful and humorous.
Check out the transcript of our conversation below.
ICMI: You’ve worked in Taiwan, India, and the Philippines. Can you share a brief overview of your experiences there?
Jane: Taiwan was different in that I was working with one of the first third party call centers providers serving domestic rather than overseas customers. Part of my work there was to educate prospective customers on how to work with an outsource partner and the benefits. This included a three day workshop that was challenging in several ways. While English was the language of business, all the materials had to be presented simultaneously in both Mandarin and English.
I’m used to conducting interactive sessions and in Taiwan the participants were much more reserved. Culturally, I believe that it is often viewed as impolite to ask the ‘teacher’ questions in a public forum and the Chinese were very focused on taking copious notes. Outside of the room the attendees would seek me out to ask questions and while I was happy to oblige I also felt the entire audience would benefit from the answers. To compensate, I wrote out a number of the questions and placed them in basket where periodically I would ‘randomly’ pull them out and respond.
It caught on with the group because the next day we started passing the basket so they could submit questions as they arose. This made for a much more energetic session where everyone contributed and benefited from sharing their questions and observations. If nothing else, experiences like this have taught me the value of being flexible in adjusting my communication or training style to accommodate the needs and differences of my audience – at home or abroad.
In India the call centers were very modern and in many cases quite opulent as they were ‘a home away from home’ for many of the employees. Being located in industrial areas, it could take an employee two hours or more to travel by employer provided transport to reach the center, so often the center was like a small city where everything was self-contained – cafeteria, prayer lounges, health services – etc. For many of the agents given the commute and their shifts, the call center was also where they socialized.
All of the staff was university educated and in their early 20s. It was and still remains a reasonably well paying job by local standards but Gen Y is the same the world over. They want a more balanced lifestyle and with the commute and night shifts required to accommodate North American hours, just like here in the U.S. and Canada, it is becoming more challenging to attract and keep the right caliber of person.
In Makati there is a number of call centers located in close proximity to one another in a very urban center. The atmosphere and environment is very different than India as an agent’s daily routine is not so controlled by their employer. It’s easy to get to and from the area, and the entire area is alive at night with call center agents frequenting coffee shops, restaurants and retail before, during and after their shift. Work and life arm are more separated so employers in the Philippines manage with a less ‘command and control’ style.
ICMI: What were the biggest cultural differences you encountered in the countries you’ve worked?
Jane: As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese tend to be much more reserved and do not volunteer information easily, so checking in to make sure you had provided the right context and your audience understood the concepts was challenging.
In India, senior leadership relied heavily on scripts to manage the quality of the conversations but you can’t script the caller so instilling the confidence and creativity to go off script was a challenge
Philippinos demonstrated a greater degree of third person sensitivity. As opposed to agents in China this made for some interesting training sessions. Of all three, agents in the Philippines tended to be much more sociable and it came through in their conversations. It seemed easier and more natural for them to build rapport but the down-side to this was that sometimes they lost sight of the business objectives related to the call.
In all three countries I found that the workforce was genuinely interested in acquiring new skills and knowledge. It was refreshing to work with people who were excited about learning about other cultures and countries – ours!
ICMI: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges of managing across cultures?
Jane: Getting people not to call me ‘Miss Jane.’ But more seriously …
Navigating the hierarchy within the call center-- and this held true in all three countries. There never seemed to be a direct route to get to where you wanted to go, whether that was making a change to a script or attempting to diagnose a technical issue.
This may have been due to the fact in many cases the supervisory and managerial staff often lacked experience outside their center, but I also felt that there was high degree of ‘level consciousness’. Even for simple matters, many people had to be consulted before a decision could be made which could be frustrating trying to resolve an issue in a timely manner.
There was also a strong desire to please the client, so occasionally I found the leadership team to make a change too agreeable or accommodating, promising results that could not be achieved given the time constraints, infrastructure or budget.
For the same reasons, senior management tended to tell you what they thought you wanted to hear rather than what you needed to know. The reluctance to bring forward issues or concerns meant that problem resolution took precedent over proactive planning.
Another challenge is maintaining the momentum and the quality after launch. International call centers also experience attrition and are under the same pressure as North American ones to do more with less, so the ratio of staff to supervisor increases and the agents receive less training, coaching and feedback. This affects their ability to continuously hone their product and communications skills and reduces opportunities for these representatives to learn about their culturally diverse clients.
ICMI: What do you see as the biggest advantages and disadvantages of global service delivery?
- Ability to follow the sun and provide 24/7 service.
- Contributing to developing an industry that can also serve a local market and add to the local economy.
- Relying on price as the sole motivating factor for off-shoring.
- If the agents do not have the training, tools or technology to professionally represent your brand, answer a customer’s inquiry or resolve their concern, or if you export ‘broken processes’ and expect your provider to resolve them, then the cost per call becomes a moot point if it results in rework and/or customer dissatisfaction.
- The out of sight, out of mind syndrome that comes with outsourcing here or abroad. Communications are further hampered by differences in time zones and the extra time it takes to communicate thoroughly, consistently and on a regular basis to really partner effectively with vendors located half a world away.
About Jane Finn
Jane Finn is a contact center consultant, trainer, speaker and aspiring travel writer. She is also a Managing Partner with Contact Strategies where she helps clients increase the strategic value of their contact centers to the organization by implementing customized quality monitoring, coaching and training programs. Jane has more than two decades of contact center experience and has had the privilege of working with a wide variety of clients In North America as well as the Caribbean, India, the Philippines and Taiwan.
You can connect with Jane via Twitter: @finn_jane, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 905-459-9434.
People Management, Learning & Development, Culture & Morale, Site Operations
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