Is Your Customer-Facing Team Diverse Enough?

Written by on January 27, 2017

Even as customer bases expand globally and teams stretch to meet this demand, your relationships with your customers just don’t seem to scale accordingly. No matter how hard you try, your relationship with your customers lacks the richness you were earlier known for.

A lot of people write this off as the side effects of scaling too quickly. The team didn’t scale quickly enough. The tool must not be the right fit. However, is the increased support rep:customer ratio really the problem? What if the problem wasn’t numbers or quality or your software? What if the problem was the way in which different cultures experience customer service?

Power Distance Index

In 1984, Professor Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist, developed a cultural dimensions theory which is used as a reference for global, cross-cultural communication. He conducted a worldwide survey based on employee values at IBM across 50 countries and classified different cultures based on how they answered questions like “How frequently, in your experience, are you afraid to express disagreement with your managers?” and so on.

One of these measures is the Power Distance Index (PDI), which is concerned with attitudes towards hierarchy; specifically, with how much a particular culture values and respects authority. In cultures where the PDI is low, people have no trouble asserting themselves towards people in authoritative positions. Examples of countries with low PDI are the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and the Nordic countries. In high PDI cultures, there is a definite hierarchy in the workplace and business is conducted in a more autocratic manner. Belgium, France, Malaysia, and the Arab world can be regarded as examples of countries or regions with high PDI cultures.

Hofstede’s PDI model is the crux of Malcolm Gladwell’s essay ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ in his book ‘Outliers’. In his book, Malcolm Gladwell uses specific airline crashes (a Korean airplane flying from Guam to Korea, an Avianca flight from Columbia to JFK) to talk about how cultural issues can cause plane crashes. All of these crashes had something in common: the airplane was in perfect condition, the pilots were experienced and there was no sign of incompetence or foul play. But the planes still crashed.

First among equals

It’s not common knowledge outside the aviation industry but Boeing airplanes, the gold standard of passenger jets all over the world, are meant to be flown by equals. As an erstwhile chief safety engineer at Boeing put it, “The whole flight deck design is intended to be operated by two people, and that operation works best when you have one person checking the other, or both people willing to participate.

This means the pilots flying the plane should be able to assert their opinion and point out mistakes if necessary. In fact, it is understood that if the first officer feels like the captain is refusing to see reason, they can take over the plane.

Back to PDI. This kind of equal power play situation works well for cultures with low PDI like America. However for cultures with high PDI, first officers and co-pilots have trouble asserting themselves to authority. This means that the atmosphere of equality, necessary for successful navigation, is not necessarily met all the time which, in some cases, led to tragic mishaps such as Flight 801 from Guam to Korea, the Air Florida plane in 1982 and the Avianca flight mentioned earlier – cases in which the first officers and co-pilots weren’t able to assert themselves enough to prevent the mishap from happening.

Now let’s take a step back from the world of aviation to customer service. What’s the power balance like when it comes to a support agent and the customer?

Initially, you might say that it’s skewed in favor of the customer because the customer is the one who’s patronizing the company’s services. However, it’s intended to be a relationship of equals because while the support agent is the face of the company to the customer, they’re the customer’s representative to the company. They champion the customer’s causes and make sure to promote their best interests.

You can see where the cards could collapse when it comes to a high PDI culture: the customer is in a position of authority and expects to be treated so and unless, the support rep is from a high PDI culture, it’s an interaction that is not guaranteed to go well.

Even something as little as names can wreck a relationship. In a high PDI culture, the customer might expect to be referred to by their designation or have a honorific attached to their last name/first name (like ‘Sir’), even if they’re keen on establishing a personal relationship with the support rep. This is in contrast to a low PDI culture where using the person’s first name to refer to someone is not thought forward or improper.

There’s also, of course, the impact that power distances have on the act of asking for help. In a high PDI culture, the act of seeking help can be misconstrued as incompetence or lack of ability so employees might feel more reluctant to reach out to support for assistance. Not to mention, customers from high PDI cultures would expect the person solving their problem to be of equal rank or higher – the more senior the person, the more the customer feels like you’re taking them seriously.

What’s a body to do when you’re facing such delicate, complicated situations?

Culture and customer service

As Professor Hofstede describes in his paper ‘Culture and Customer Service, the best way to manage these delicate situations is by setting the right expectations with your customers and your internal team.

In general, customers do not distinguish between the service and the provider of that service, which means that CSRs should respect and reflect the values and norms of the customers. Even if all customers prefer to be treated in a respectful and courteous way, exactly what is considered respectful and courteous behavior is to a very high degree culturally contingent. For a CSR to successfully relate to a customer is not the same in e.g. Germany, Spain or South Korea. In order for the CSR to be able to relate to the customer successfully, it is crucial for the CSR to truly listen to and acknowledge the customer. This requires the CSR to be able to understand and match the cultural background of the customer. In other words, the CSR needs to be able to ‘read’ and answer the customer correctly according to the customer’s expectations, which are imbedded in the norms and values of the customer. Intercultural awareness plays a very important part in this process.

So, it’s a two part solution:

  1. Your customer needs to understand how business is conducted at your organization to iron out the wrinkles.
  2. Your team needs to be able to empathize enough that they’re able to adapt their service based on the cultural constraints that a diverse customer base brings to the table; so empathetic that they’re able to respect and reflect the values and norms your customers possess even if they don’t possess them.

That kind of intercultural awareness – where you’re able to not just respect but reflect your customers’ values and norms – is best accomplished by a multicultural diverse team.

When your customer-facing team is diverse and empathetic, they’ll bring their individual, cultural experiences to the table to create shared awareness. It doesn’t matter if the team is centralized or distributed – the only thing that matters is the sensitivity, intelligence and creativity they bring to the table.

Some businesses tackle this situation by hiring remote, distributed teams ala Automattic. There are 532 Automatticians in 53 countries speaking 74  different languages (Phew!). Some teams, like Zapier and Buffer, go on retreats to create these shared experiences.

Others do so by hiring people from different walks of life à la Moz.

We [also] look for oddballs. People with weird talents or interests that can come in handy down the road. We’ve got an eccentric ukulele player, a League of Legends addict, someone that climbs mountains with a dog, a quasi-hippie socialist, a children’s book author, Princeton grad, and a s’mores addict. Most of them are artists in some capacity, which I love. Diversity of experience and ideas is extremely important to me, because we can all learn from folks that aren’t mirror images of ourselves.” – Nick Sayers, Director of Customer Experience, Moz.

One of the tougher challenges, in my opinion, when it’s a high PDI customer, is overcoming their hesitancy to ask for help. This could be handled through a customer service approach that also includes self-service. A well-stocked self-service portal that makes sure to provide solutions to frequently encountered problems and answers for frequently asked questions could be just what the psychologist recommended to round out your bases.


In the end, Korean Air brought in David Greenberg, from Delta Airlines, to run their flight operations. Greenberg assessed everyone’s English language skills and brought in a Western firm to take over the company’s training and instruction programs. As Gladwell put it, “Greenberg wanted to give his pilots an alternate identity. Their problem was that they were trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country’s cultural legacy. They needed an opportunity to step outside their roles when they sat in the cockpit, and language was key to the transformation. In English, they would be free of the sharply defined gradients of Korean hierarchy: formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, informal, and plain. Instead, the pilots could participate in a culture and language with a very different legacy.

However, the PDI measure is not intended to be a stereotype. There will, of course, be outliers and individualists in every culture, people who buck the trend.

Each of us have our own distinct personality. But overlaid on top of that are tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and those differences are extraordinarily specific.

So, while there are some interesting ideas for how expectations of customer service differ from culture cluster to culture cluster but what really stands the test of time and changing expectations is a well-rounded team that is eager, nay determined, to serve. That’s all the secret sauce you need to win over your customers.

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