By Sean Dubberke
Imagine the following scenario where a customer on an adventure tour in Myanmar asks about the evening’s accommodation and plans for the following day:
Karen, American tourist: “Aung, will there be Wi-Fi in the hotel tonight?”
Aung, Local guide: “Sure, madam. No problem.”
Karen: “Great, it’s been several days since we had a connection.”
Karen: “Do you know if we’ll have any free time tomorrow after we explore Old Bagan?”
Aung: “Yes, madam. You can choose.”
Karen: “What can we choose? It’s your job to tell us what to do, after all.” (Smiles)
Aung: “Sorry, madam.”
Karen: “It would be nice to have some time to do a little shopping before our next move.”
Aung: “Yes, it would. We have many beautiful local products to buy in Bagan.”
Karen: “Great then, I look forward to that.”
In the end, the hotel didn’t have Wi-Fi, although Aung did try to find a connection, but he purposefully avoided following up because he didn’t have good news. There was also no free time allotted on the subsequent day, and no option was given by the leader of the group to opt out of the itinerary. Karen was frustrated by what appeared to be a lack of transparency and communication skills. What happened?
From a training perspective, it’s important for operators to know the nature of customer service in their portfolio of destinations. In Myanmar, and many countries in Asia, client relations dictate behavior in a number of ways that are quite distinct from Western models. For example:
Service providers in Southeast Asia attempt to give customers what they ask for, regardless of what may be in the plans. Exceptions are the norm.
The hierarchical nature of client-vendor relations puts the client in a very high position where the vendor is expected to be very deferential to the client, again even when the request might not be feasible.
“No” is rarely expressed directly. Culturally, the word “no” is too strong and confrontational for cultures that teach individuals from a young age to avoid unpleasant conversation, to maintain harmony and to save “face” at all times. In this case, Aung didn’t know the answer, but instead thought that he would find out once they arrived.
Of course, the more direct communication patterns typical of Americans and many Westerners make it easy to say exactly what one is thinking because it aligns with values around providing relevant information, transparency and efficiency.
Sharing adequate information to American customers is important to their well-being while on tour, and the preference to avoid sharing unpleasant or opaque news in certain countries can be challenging for operators to manage. What could you do to ensure appropriate sharing of information with guests? Here are a few strategies:
Develop a procedure to alert supervisors when challenging situations arise. There should be very clear steps and lots of detail (e.g. “when you don’t know, tell the customer the following, ‘Let me ask my manager about that — we’ll let you know’”).
Partner with the supplier to ensure understanding by using examples or craft role plays like the one above.
Train suppliers and their staff to provide feedback to their supervisors immediately when they come across a question they don’t have the answer to. Managers in hierarchical societies like Myanmar’s and others in Southeast Asia are responsible for knowing everything about the business and are empowered to address the customers’ questions better than junior staff.
Give permission to staff to ask questions when they don’t know the answer, even if it’s uncomfortable for them. This behavioral adaptation may take time.
In general, provide close supervision to suppliers from hierarchical cultures, where employees expect their managers to provide constant oversight and support. The “think outside the box” approach is not part of hierarchically structured cultures.
What is culture?
In this context, culture is a value system that is shared by a community, an ethnicity, a nation — even a company. Cultural values are often deeply embedded, and they strongly influence the way we behave in the workplace. Values define what’s right and wrong, and the implications of cultural difference can be huge when we only evaluate situations based on our own cultural perspective. Of course, individuals are unique, but we can identify the trappings of overarching, national cultural values in many instances.
The goal of building cultural awareness is to use that knowledge not only to effectively interpret the way people from other cultural backgrounds behave, but to understand how and when you can adjust your approach to be effective.
Often, we have to re-consider business basics that we assume are the same everywhere. For example, considering Italian culture, how can you effectively manage Italian customers’ expectations? How much context do they need around adventure activities? How much choice do they need around food, accommodation and other creature comforts? A U.S. based operator may only allot one hour for meals, but for Italians, lunch may last more than 2 hours. For highly interpersonal cultures, meal time is an important part of the day to reflect and socialize with friends and family. Meals might feel rushed, and guests may feel stressed if they have to move on too quickly.
In contrast, American and German travelers often look for detailed information on activities and their difficulty levels, safety precautions, accommodation specifics and enjoy having timetables. This helps manage their expectations, and over-communicating some of these details can put Americans and Germans at ease. Southern Europeans, including Italians, are often more laid back about such details, but might enjoy some leeway with free time for spontaneous reasons.
Building Trust in the Right Way
The topic of intercultural collaboration is important to any global professional, and there’s a lot to learn, but one thing that’s of vital importance is to know how to build trust in the right way.
In general, if we build trust by delivering on our colleagues’ expectations, then we need to be aware of the specifics around those expectations because they’ll be different from culture to culture.
For example, in many Sub-Saharan African countries, interpersonal activities — more than anything else — lead to strong business relationships where open sharing of information and effective communication is possible. You can develop trust by showing that you care for your business partners, not just as businesspeople, but as individuals or as a team. Here are some tips:
Discuss topics that may not be relevant to the business or the task at hand (e.g. weather, family, hobbies, food, culture, etc.).
You’ll need plenty of face-to-face interaction, whenever possible, to engage in conversation, whether it’s around the dinner table, at a café or even spending time on the phone to demonstrate personal interest.
Find ways to show that you are interested in a long-term business relationship, versus focusing only on short-term tasks.
This is in sharp contrast to the competency model that many Westerners use, where individuals demonstrate trustworthiness through their skills and ability to perform on the job. Personality fit is something people deal with after ensuring specific talent requirements.
Ask yourself what is more important at work: completing tasks or building relationships? Task-focused, direct communicating Americans will take a verbal agreement (“yes”) at face value, but a Latin colleague would likely expect most agreements to be negotiable. However, with deep trust and a strong relationship, your Latin American colleagues will go to great lengths to do a good job for you. Relationships often take priority in Latin America, which often makes up for the lack of reliable infrastructure, among other things. This is another reason to focus on building trust in the right way. The more demanding an irked American becomes when deadlines aren’t met, the more trust erodes with their Latino business partners. Latinos appear less reliable to the Americans, and Americans appear too inflexible, unfriendly and uninterested in understanding their approach.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
If you take one concept away from this brief foray into working across cultures, it should be this: the way you interpret what your colleagues express should be done so not only from your own unique perspective, but from theirs, too (in addition to paying close attention to the way you ask questions!). Cultural values are often invisible, but the manifestations of those values are visible through behavior. As always, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we can learn to be successful in any market by becoming more culturally agile.
About Sean Dubberke
Sean Dubberke is Director of Intercultural Training at RW3 CultureWizard where he leads a global network of trainers, facilitators and consultants to design and deliver instructor-led learning experiences for clients worldwide. Sean speaks Spanish fluently and has studied Arabic, German, French and Japanese. He has traveled to over 40 countries and has lived abroad for 3 years in Germany, Spain and the UK.