The importance of cultural diversity in customer service


The British Prime Minister Theresa May recently announced that the UK will continue to take part in the Erasmus student exchange programme until at least the end of 2020, despite the fact that the country is leaving the European Union.
Although this is great news for the short-term, it is also important to reflect upon the long-term consequences that leaving the programme could have.
Not only will leaving Erasmus cut off access for British students wanting to study abroad, it will also deny British businesses the chance to host, learn and benefit from foreign students.
The benefits of sending British students abroad is generally understood, accepted and supported; spending time abroad gives you language and cultural skills as well as developing confidence and other important transferable life skills.
The same positive case however is rarely made for those going the other way (i.e. foreign students coming into the UK).
Through sharing a real and personal experience of working with Erasmus students I would like to highlight what we could be potentially missing as a nation, as businesses and as people.

A Case Study in Culture and Customer Service
The company in question was based in a part of the UK which is both monocultural and monolingual. Exposure to difference, yet alone diversity, was rare.
A good distance from any university and with a local workforce offering relatively low-level manual skills, our recruitment pool was limited. We overcame the skills gaps ourselves using internal training, coaching and mentoring.
Despite great progress, one area in which the company struggled was in dealing with the 40% to 45% of our enquiries, custom, clients and business that came from outside of the UK. Export is important to us - very important.
A poorly worded email in English, a heavy accent on the phone, or a seemingly rude line of questioning, and our staff would misunderstand, misrepresent and ultimately lose us business.  
Despite support and even cross-cultural training, there was always something missing; it did not come naturally and poor decisions led to missed opportunities.
That is until we signed up to the Erasmus exchange programme.
Over the years we hosted people from France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy and many more. Within 6 months our staff were changing; within a few years some were transformed.

So how did it impact the staff?
Confidence - a clear change over the months and years was in showing confidence. Our European visitors brought with them a real sense of pride in what they did and how they did it; this rubbed off on the whole company. Rather than feeling controlled by circumstances and forces, they now took active control of circumstances through purposefully managing conversations, negotiations and relationships.
Communication Skills - once upon a time, if the team received a call from Russia, China, India or even South Africa our person on the phone would be flapping. Not only were they unable to understand English spoken in a slightly different way but the way they dealt with the calls could border on rude. Literally months after spending time with the interns this all started to change. They could understand accents, pick out words to provide clues to meanings, ask the right questions in the correct way and think through procedures to ensure everyone was on the same page.
Cultural Awareness as our exchange students began to settle in and develop relationships with our staff both in and out of business, there was a subtle change over the coming years in terms of their approach to difference and embracing change. A most striking example for me was the move from a very British lunchtime routine of everyone disappearing to eat a sandwich, some crisps and get away from colleagues for 60 minutes, to one where they would sit down at a table and have lunch together. If it were not for the exchange students religiously doing this every day and demonstrating that there is another way of going about lunch, this would not have happened. This alone was a cultural revolution, in our office anyway.
Customer Service - finally, being able to understand, identify with, relate to and communicate clearly with people helps you understand better how to see to their needs and as a business provide great customer service. An organic side effect of the exchange programme was in our team being able to think differently, understand what makes people from other countries tick, how to manage tricky conversations and ultimately how to provide customer service in a way that resonated with the client. Can we really afford to lose these benefits?

Neil Payne is an expert in cross cultural training with Commisceo Global a consultancy that specialises in helping companies navigate cultural differences when operating abroad. With a background in language teaching, translation and training he is also an expert in Middle Eastern politics and Islam.