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A (delightful) mystery shopping experience
As I enter a luxury watch boutique in Melbourne, Antonello greets me with a welcoming smile, sparkly eyes and arms outstretched as if he’s about to hug me. We don’t know each other yet. In fact, I am there on a mystery shopping exercise. He doesn’t hug me, but he does extend his hand and offer his name. After establishing that I know very little about his brand he suggests that he take me on a small tour of his boutique. His passion for the brand is contagious. His expression is theatrical but genuine. His tone is excited, and his gestures are animated and confident. His product knowledge is exceptional. After 20 minutes of enthusiastic storytelling, I’m romanced and almost ready to drop several thousands of dollars on a watch I know I can’t afford and don’t really want or need. When I push back on price, he clarifies his position respectfully setting boundaries for our interaction.
Understanding cultural value differences
Let’s analyse this experience for a moment. This story speaks to how well Antonello, a sales professional, connected with me, a prospective buyer. I was there to evaluate the brand’s ability to deliver on its brand promise and thanks to Antonello, I left as a brand ambassador. I was greeted with enthusiasm and warmth. I was educated and romanced. Antonello established rapport and trust all while demonstrating respect – win/win!
Though we are of different cultural backgrounds – Antonello is of Italian origin and I am British-Asian – our orientation towards an expressive communication style and outward demonstration of passion is common between us. We established a comfortable rhythm of conversation as equal participants. Antonello visibly engages in active listening and gains my trust with his expertise.
There are a few cultural dynamics at play here that would not necessarily translate across all cultures. Antonello’s Asian colleagues find it immensely difficult to hold eye contact. In some cultures, including Australia, it is a sign of respect to look someone in the eye when they speak to you. It demonstrates active listening and assures the speaker that you are engaged and interested. In return, if the other person holds eye contact it signals confidence in what is being said. In many Asian cultures, however, it is polite to hold eye contact only briefly – especially in situations where the listener may be of a higher social status. Sporadic meeting of the eyes indicates respect rather than a lack of interest.
In Australia it is the norm to display emotion and openly convey passion in the workplace. In some cultures, such as Germany and Japan, it is the norm to refrain from open displays of emotion and disguise what you are feeling or thinking. Restraint is in fact a sign of respect.
Australia’s egalitarian society places a customer and a service professional on a level which creates opportunity from which to build rapport. In some cultures, such as Asian and Arab cultures, a convention of hierarchy holds strong. This can be an obstacle for a service professional trying to establish a relationship. For individuals who hail from cultures that accept and respect a distance with those perceived to be in power positions, asserting themselves in a sales or negotiation situation can be challenging. In such cultures where formality prevails, even introducing themselves and suggesting a first name basis can be extremely daunting.
Recognising cultural nuances
Does your customer service translate across cultures? Do your training programs consider the diverse profiles of your team members? Don’t be alarmed if you answered ‘no’, you are certainly not alone. Diverse cultural peoplescapes are difficult to navigate, and the task can often appear harder than it actually is. So where can you start?
In culturally nuanced situations, establishing relationships is dependent on understanding the cultural value differences involved. This article speaks to two cultural values – Expression and Authority – from a framework of 10 value dimensions. Value mapping amongst teams is a powerful way to deepen our understanding of the different orientations of people from different cultural backgrounds and identify how to bridge the gaps.