Web Hosting

Customer Service Around the Globe: When In Rome

By Sebastian Moser
Director of Technical Development
1&1 Internet, Inc.

“Have a nice day!” It’s been the standard-issue customer service sign-off line since the concept of doing business over the phone was first put into practice. But for those who work in the field day in and day out, this seemingly harmless, well-intended phrase can elicit more hostility than a Yankees/Red Sox game if it’s not used in exactly the right context or uttered with the most perfect vocal inflection.

Then again, it depends on where the customer reading or hearing the line happens to live.

Take the “Have a nice day!” line, for example. Most customer support agents in the United States routinely include this phrase at the end of each and every email they send to customers. And quite frankly, they genuinely mean it. However, what happens when an agent’s email to a customer is subsequently forwarded to the complaint department because the recipient felt the “Have a Nice Day!” was arrogant and condescending. In fact, the customer demands an apology.

Certainly, an incident like this would be considered unusual in any country and is more an example of a simple misinterpretation than of any dramatic cultural difference. Still, it’s fascinating to see and experience how diverse customers are in different locations, in several respects; right on down to the way people actually use their hosting packages.

For a global webhost, ascertaining the differences in usage patterns within various countries of operation is crucial. It helps determine many things: pricing, features, policy and server capacity among other issues.

In Germany, the vast majority of users use only a small percentage of the features that come with their plan, particularly the allotted web space and email addresses. In North America, on the other hand, customers use substantially more of their provided web space and mailboxes (sometimes up to four times as much) which, for example, places a much heavier burden on the hardware on location. Thus, these issues need to be taken into consideration and will influence other factors more so in the U.S. than they will elsewhere.

Bargaining is something that appears to be indigenous to the U.S. and is most likely a carryover from the American method of car buying which, ironically, most American’s will tell you they find most disagreeable. It’s essentially a negotiating session wherein the customer goes back-and-forth with the salesmen in an effort to maximize the value they’re getting for their dollar.

In fact, it’s kind of an unwritten rule of car buying in the U.S. that if you want the best deal, you have to be prepared to negotiate. In other words, most of the time the onus is on the customer to see how much they can get for what they’re paying and it’s not uncommon to hear a car buyer tell the sales person: “Well, if you throw in the alloy wheels and the premium stereo package at this price, you have yourself a deal.”

Since this “wheeling and dealing” (as it is referred to in American slang) has long been the accepted method for buying a car in the U.S., it’s no surprise at all that it often influences the way people make other purchases as well. Folks shopping for webhosting will quite often test the waters to see if they can get just a little more than the advertised features for the same price. The answer is almost invariably “no” but still, you have to admire the effort.

Payment methods are another example of local differences. Most customers in Germany pay for their services via direct debit from their bank account, which is something most U.S. customers seemed to resist until the fairly recent advent of online services like MyCheckFree.com. Germans on the other hand are still fairly cautious when using credit cards – if they have a credit card at all.

Another interesting difference in various worldwide markets is language itself. Not in the obvious sense of different countries speaking different languages, but in the way people within each country react to the dialects and accents of their own native tongues.
Sometimes it’s even a bit bizarre.

In the UK, for example, many customers dislike speaking with U.S. support agents. Quite often the complaint is that the customer had trouble understanding what the agent was saying. This becomes even more puzzling considering that most UK call centers are based in Scotland, where the Scottish dialect is practically considered a foreign language by English speaking Europeans. So while UK customers are often bothered by having to deal with an agent who literally speaks their language, they seem unfazed by Asian or African support reps’ accents—which, in contrast, is quite a common complaint in most other English speaking countries.

Even expectations for customer service vary according to country. In Germany, quite frankly, people are happy with the bare minimum. This changes a bit in the UK, while U.S. customers are accustomed to some of the more thorough and attentive customer service models around.

Generally speaking, the British live up to their reputation by being very polite and friendly both on the phone and when writing emails. They also tend to be a lot more understanding of and sympathetic to company policies and practices. In the U.S., legalities and other factors make it challenging to present certain product features or details like terms and conditions in a way that ensures people will read them thoroughly and come away with a clear understanding.

The patience—or persistence, depending on how you look at it—of the average customer also varies according to location. When waiting for a support agent, British customers tend to hang up after a maximum wait time of about 4 minutes whereas a typical U.S. customer will stay on hold for 45 minutes or longer.

This is a reality German customers are not accustomed to at all. There, to reach a service provider’s support or help line, callers must use a 900 number that doesn’t allow any holding patterns. Customers therefore are faced with the prevailing sound of a busy signal whenever the line they are trying to call is busy. Without a working redial button on your phone, this could lead to a nervous breakdown if your website just went offline and you’re desperately trying to find out what had happened.

It is essential for an international company to have a firm understanding of these regional differences if it is to succeed in the global marketplace. One might say that the Internet is strictly international and doesn’t hold any regional differentiation since a website is just as accessible to someone in Grand Rapids, Mich. or Leeds, England as it is to a user in Timbuktu, Mali. But once a company has identified its major markets it is crucial for it to have staff present within them in order to maximize both its marketing and customer service delivery.

The bottom line of operating an internet business in various different countries can be summarized by invoking yet another international location. “When in Rome…” really does apply if you hope to be successful.

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