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A Different Way to Think About Relationships: Being Culturally Proactive

A brief introduction by Sarah Stealey Reed, Content Director of ICMI: Typically I would be opening this article by Susan and Ben Paganelli with a little more fanfare! You'll have to excuse my brevity this week, as I am on currently on a cruise celebrating my honeymoon and my new stepson's Spring Break.  As this is a Disney cruise, I can say with certainty that we will be having a great number of intercultural experiences. I can't wait to write more about the fascinating concept of cultural awareness and its impact on customer service. In the meantime, I am pleased to introduce our ACCE Speakers of the Week!

ACCE 2013, what an exciting event!  This opportunity is even more exciting for us because our background and expertise (intercultural awareness) is perhaps a little different from most of the conference attendees and faculty.  We will, starting with this article, hopefully engage with all of you in an energetic discussion relevant in all areas and levels of business, but particularly appropriate to the call center industry.  We’d like to begin the conversation by addressing the importance of cultural awareness at all levels of interaction.  Additionally, we’ll discuss being ‘culturally proactive’, rather than reactive, and how this is an important factor in business strategy.

The concept of being culturally aware is important for two main reasons: 1) “intercultural” is not a synonym for “international”, and 2) the expression: “business is business no matter where you are in the world” is misleading.  How is “intercultural” different from “international”?  The answer can be found close to home.  Different cultures, with all that term implies, can be found regionally, within cities, and even within companies.  Take the US for example.  Anyone from the northern states who has traveled to the south and tried to order an unsweetened iced tea can attest to the blank stare of the waiter or waitress serving them.  Conversely, a southerner would be hard-pressed to find grits, good or bad, for breakfast anywhere along the West Coast.   Corporately you only have to read the comic strip Dilbert to find examples of cultural conflict between engineers and management, sales, administration and others.  We are required to interact with people from other cultures in most of our business dealings.  Which ties in nicely to our next thought – business is business.  We hear it often in our line of work, yet we have found it to be inaccurate as this phrase omits the importance of relationships.  Sure, most cultures understand the importance of the bottom-line, but it is knowing what is important to the other party, and having knowledge about their culture which consistently proves to be one of the best ways to accomplish this. 


The ability to be culturally aware is critical at all levels of business.  For instance, customer service representatives who understand their clients are able to address their issues more easily and to a higher level of satisfaction.  A supervisor who knows what best motivates his or her workers and is able to implement that knowledge into performance metrics is far better off than a supervisor without that knowledge.  Significantly, and here is where we start to discuss being proactive, a manager who is able to use cultural knowledge when considering strategic plans such as locations to expand to, hidden costs of operation, and accurate labor costs can be proactive in design, training, and implementation.

In a recent export forum we discussed being culturally proactive focusing on awareness as strategy, not lip service.  Factoring cultural differences into your planning process from the beginning helps you build a better plan.  Considering these differences in your training, metrics, and incentive programs maximizes your profits.  Understanding and communicating with your colleagues builds healthy, valuable, life-long relationships.  Just as you would not build a call center facility without a blueprint, we suggest you want to include these cultural considerations at every level of your operational design.

We started our business in order to help organizations be more effective when working with other cultures.  Our experiences, gained from working for years abroad with international organizations, can help you capture the knowledge that will help you to be more culturally proactive.  We will be speaking to some of these issues, such as how to avoid cultural pitfalls (with handouts including practical tips), at our session - #207 on Tuesday May 14th.  We are fortunate to have Ted Stodolka, Senior Global Director from Marriott International, joining us bringing real and often humorous stories from his experiences with international call centers.  We look forward to seeing you in Seattle!