An article from Bloomberg Businessweek, (Companies & Industries, Gate B22 in the Frankfurt Airport Offers a Lesson in Cultural Differences, March 19, 2014 by Harold L. Sirkin), focuses on the challenge of working in environments ripe with cultural contrasts and misunderstanding. In particular, the lack of managers to relate to and understanding the cross-cultural challenges front line employees regularly handle–as illustrated at Gate B22 in Frankfurt.
Don’t be confused. This is not some simple or isolated interactive situation easily repaired by a few checklists but an important education crossroads and one that must be diligently faced by customer-focused businesses concerned with establishing and maintaining a strong position in the global marketplace. The challenge is especially critical for travel-related industries like hotels, cruise lines, restaurants and chains that cater to a multicultural and international clientele. To have your employees not understand the differences between cultures is to not be prepared for the very clients you hope to attract on a global stage. And it all starts with leadership. If your management team is not culturally savvy, how do you expect the rest of the organization to take your lead?
To understand the situation more clearly as illustrated by the interactions at Gate B22 in the Frankfurt Airport:
“There are two distinct cultures at Gate B22—a German culture that expects orderliness, with passengers boarding as their sections are called, and an Indian culture, in which virtually everyone rushes the gate as soon as those in wheelchairs—and others needing extra time and assistance—are summoned to preboard.
“In Germany, when you call for preboarding for wheelchairs, only those in wheelchairs go forward. In India, apparently, the rules are different—everyone pushes forward. Many of those claiming they are wheelchair passengers are clearly ambulatory and are carrying heavy bags that need to be checked because they would never fit in an overhead bin.”
The clash of differing reactions to a boarding call and different cultural responses to rules and direction are the challenge in this situation. It reveals how cultural expectations and perceptions shape different passenger/client behaviors and responses to limits. Sirkin continues and reveals that although the airline personnel are familiar with the cross-cultural dynamic, there is a perceived disdain for the Indian customer behavior amongst German airline personnel. In particular, the description below provides insight into the lack of understanding within the German-Indian cultural dynamic—the Indian consumer mindset and understanding the behavior through Indian cultural norms, values and mores.
“As I found out, however, any surprise the gate agents feigned was mostly performance art—for the sake of appearances—since the same routine apparently happens daily, probably multiple times a day. The process repeats without change: The Germans do what they do; the Indians do what they do; and the Americans watch in a combination of frustration and amusement.”
And cross-cultural misconnects such as these take place countless times per day in the customer service industry between cultures with conflicting interactive styles and ways of operating.
So, what’s the solution? A number of strategies need to be implemented, two of which I recommend as top takeaways:
1. Managers should better understand and not only acknowledge the cross-cultural challenges front line employees deal with regularly, but make the effort to experience them firsthand. Employ MBWA- Management By Walking Around. Get out there with the frontline troops – experience their cross-cultural challenges by observing interactions or, better yet, directly test your skill set with international customers and see how you fare.
2. Implement training programs so front line employees better understand behavior different from their own, how to respectfully and appropriately respond to these behaviors and familiarize themselves with the motivations that drive international customers.
On a more specific level, as outlined in Sales Evolution, Cultural Vision for Strategic Leaders, there are four main obstacles to functional communication between cultures. I’ll point out two here that strike me as particularly relevant to international customer service driven industries.
1. Perceptions of Hierarchy
2. Conflicting Norms for Decision Making
These two obstacles play out not only in the diverse ethnic cultures encountered by airline industries but also within the culture of the service environment itself as shown via Gate B22. For example, in a highly caste-oriented society, such as the Indian culture, service personnel are not considered to have high social status. Therefore, the direction and guidance gate personnel provide is often disregarded by the culture because gate agents have little perceived social status or authority. The key is for airline personnel to understand the Indian logic (not take it personally) and devise an effective, yet respectful interactive strategy accordingly.
Additionally, the second obstacle, conflicting norms for decision making, often comes into play. In this scenario, Germans are use to order and are particularly rule conscious while Indians are often surrounded by chaos and are rule aversive. Therefore, they have completely different responses to the decision-making process when presented with guidance or instruction. Once again, the solution for customer service personnel is education. Once front line personnel understand the cultural dynamics, they can respond to conflicts free of ethnocentrism and with compassion.
When corporate leaders embrace a cultural vision of global leadership and embrace cross-cultural education for all employees, similar scenarios and potential conflicts play out smoothly for both front-line employees and diverse sets of clients. In the final analysis, the vision that encompasses a global mindset prevails in the long run and wins loyalty among employees and clients alike. Cultural intelligence can only garner more respect and profits for globally focused companies. It’s a win/win for leaders, employees and clients alike.