Published: July 09, 2013 | Comments
In a prior role with a global international air transportation company headquartered in Australia (and later the Netherlands), I headed up the service quality team that traveled to offices across the globe to audit procedures, review service metrics, and make recommendations to improve operations and customer service.
These were very turbulent times; we started as the Berlin Wall came down and we moved into Eastern Europe rapidly, six post offices turned over their international postal operations to us, we merged several company divisions with varying company cultures together, and one of our major competitors pulled out of Europe and turned their business over to us. I went from a $1.8B per year division to a $18B per year corporation all in a year and a half.
One of our first discoveries was that customers were more alike than different across cultures, albeit to varying degrees. However, we did find a few high level differences between cultures; for example, customer accountability varied wildly. In some cultures, clients diligently prepared shipments and stayed current on various customs laws. While in other cultures, clients dropped anything and everything on their shipping dock in all states of packaging (or not) and expected us to quickly and accurately deliver their shipments without problems. American clients were somewhere in the middle of this spectrum but overall were good with packaging and accurately stating contents, while not as worldly in their understanding of various customs laws.
Concerning customer service, American clients stood out from most other cultures by asking for in depth details behind service delays or failures, and once experiencing a delay, they expected regular information updates through final delivery. Given the level of competition we faced in the USA from the American carriers, we had to match and attempt to surpass our competitors’ customer service levels in the world’s largest economy.
Educating our employees about why we needed to treat American customers differently was somewhat of a battle as the USA was a small percentage of total corporate revenues, yet was a major destination for our customers in the rest of the world. My team consisted of thirteen to seventeen staff, with three Americans serving simultaneously at one point. We Americans tried not to purely focus on USA business but in every major office, we scheduled a meeting with Customer Service and Operations management. We educated them about the company’s US market situation, and that two of our three competitors were going to become very big in their markets soon. Furthermore, we urged them not to ignore service failures that had a customer created root cause.
Examples of this were shipments where very well-known and basic requirements for export were ignored by American customers, and the missing documentation or other requirements such as content amount limits were not caught at the origin office in the USA. The destination country would let the shipment sit in customs with no extra effort on their part, because their attitude was “we’ve told everyone in the world about these requirements thousands of times, furthermore it is in the corporate documentation, why should we stop everything to help a clueless American company?”
In those countries where shipping customers were somewhat reckless, the origin offices staffed up to perform due diligence on nearly every package, including creating documentation on behalf of customers (with legal right to do so already agreed upon). In the USA, our employees attempted to perform the same level of diligence, but due to the varying level of global awareness, even in global corporations, it was difficult to catch all of the offending shipments and correct them.
Additionally, American customers demanded a regular update by phone, fax, or email regardless of progress. Typically, most of the customer service offices worked under a rule of “if there is no change in anything, we will not inform you until there is.” Obviously, this is a poor way to conduct business as evidenced by our regularly discovered “stuck” shipments that Customer Service had forgotten about because they were waiting to hear back from Customs. My team documented the cost of non-compliance and successfully implemented a communication policy for all held, lost, or unidentified shipments.
The rate of adoption varied wildly across the globe, with the USA leading the charge, with Asia/Pacific right behind them, and the rest of the world very reluctant to expend the additional energy. Once communication became part of customer service management’s goals, compliance raised significantly.
In review, American customers were the most demanding regarding communication across the globe as a culture. Certainly, we had non-American customers who also were demanding in the same way, but the USA and Canada stood out as the cultures, rather than companies that demanded frequent, and detailed communication.
What differences or similarities have you found in dealing with customers around the world? Share your experiences in the comments below.