Understanding Cultural Differences Across B2B Markets

Nick Hague this week takes us on a world tour, explaining why you should never be surprised to get such varied responses to your global customer satisfaction questions.

We tend to have a human instinct that ‘deep inside’ all people are the same – but they are not. Therefore, if we go into another country and make decisions based on how we operate in our own home country – the chances are we’ll make some very bad decisions – Geert Hofstede

After spending what seems like the last few months living out of a suitcase delivering research findings to a myriad of companies in countries ranging from Germany, Belgium, Spain and Ireland to the USA and China, it has hit home to me even more so, how important it is to understand individual country differences.  These differences might be cultural, behavioural or attitudinal, but a researcher needs to know what lies behind a given score before making informed recommendations for action.  Carrying out international research is all in a day’s work at B2B International!

Enquiries for customer satisfaction and loyalty research have risen in recent months as the global recession bites harder and companies are turning their attention towards retaining their existing customer base.  We are often tasked with carrying out customer satisfaction studies that cover multiple geographies.  Implementing and evaluating such research requires an understanding of the different cultures and infrastructures within a particular geography; for example will a Chinese respondent answer an unsolicited telephone call or will an e-survey alienate half your target market in Spain? Another complexity that comes up in multi-country studies is making sure a translated questionnaire has the same meaning across multiple geographies.  However, one of the most important aspects of carrying out international research is having the insight to why individuals from different countries around the world convey such different ratings; especially customer satisfaction ratings, when receiving a similar if not identical service from the same global organisation.

So my Thursday Night Insight rant this week is about response styles and I pose the question: Why do customer satisfaction response styles differ between countries?

Typically, in any customer satisfaction survey the norm is to use a 10 point scale where 1 means totally unsatisfied and 10 means totally satisfied.  When asking this question to customers across different countries I can definitely make the following general observations:

  • Anglo respondents e.g. UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Nordic and a number of Western European cultures tend to use all points on the scale
  • Across Asia and especially in countries such as China, Hong Kong and Japan, respondents tend to use the middle of the scale and not the extremities of very satisfied or not very satisfied
  • Respondents from Latin countries e.g. Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina tend to use the end of the scales and are more likely to register higher satisfaction scores overall

However, one point that should be made clear is that these observations are generalizations and what we do see is that respondents from North America typically give higher satisfaction scores than their UK or Western European counterparts.  One reason, I personally believe, is down to cultural differences.  For example, I have an American colleague who works within our European HQ and on his first day at B2B International he greeted me with the question ‘how are you today?’ to which I replied ‘OK’.  He looked aghast and said ‘why, what’s the matter?’ There was no problem or issue but my typical English response led my colleague to think that something was wrong based on our different cultural backgrounds.  Therefore, based on these differences, Americans would typically rate a product or service as a 9 or 10 (totally satisfied or excellent) while Europeans would rate a similar issue as a 7 or 8 (an okay, acceptable, satisfactory score). Another reason for higher satisfaction scores in the US could be that Americans are more likely to respond to a survey even when service levels are good and expectations are being met whilst Europeans only respond if the service is poor or they have a gripe to bear – however, this is a personal point of view and so like any good researcher I wanted to know if any external research has been carried out looking at geographical scoring differences. 

Supporting the internal B2B viewpoint is a piece of research I came across carried out with 116,000 employees of IBM Corporation operating in more than 40 countries.  Using these findings, Geert Hofstede from Maastricht University developed a framework that identified four different typologies based on national culture that impacted on response styles.  These typologies were:

Power distance: The degree to which people in a country accept a hierarchical or unequal distribution of power in organizations.  Therefore respondents would typically score mid-response ratings and countries showing this type of response style include Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, India, Philippines, China, Brazil, Chile and Mexico

Uncertainty avoidance: The degree to which people prefer structured vs. unstructured situations. Cultures high in uncertainty avoidance prefer unambiguous situations and are therefore more likely to use the endpoints of the scale as opposed to the middle, thus exhibiting an extreme response style. Countries showing this type of response include Belgium, Poland, France, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Korea and Japan

Individualism: The degree to which people in a country focus on working as individuals vs. working together. Cultures high in individualism are less likely to exhibit a middle satisfaction score because they would emphasize their individual opinion as opposed to their perception of the group opinion. Among all the response styles, individualistic cultures may exhibit extreme response styles and include countries such as US, Canada, Australia, UK, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Hungary and France.

Assertiveness: The degree to which people in a country emphasize traits such as assertiveness and insensitivity to feelings. One could hypothesize that individuals in these cultures would favour more extreme response styles and that “softer,” more “sensitive” cultures exhibit more modesty or middle response styles.  Countries that have been categorized as assertive are the UK, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Japan.  However, it should be pointed out that Geert’s research is inconclusive with regards to the impact of this dimension on response scores.

In conclusion, the key takeaways are thus.  Every business needs a feedback loop to assess their performance and provide an ongoing measurement and benchmark for future progress.  Customer satisfaction surveys are excellent at delivering this feedback, but different country cultures do impact on responses and response rates and so, when analyzing international research findings, a researcher needs to use their knowledge and judgement to whether a response is based on different levels of performance, or simply because of a result of cultural difference.

In the future, when comparing international customer satisfaction research findings, it might be useful to take the following three steps:

  1. Compare internal satisfaction scores for a particular country and avoid cross-country comparisons; for example, comparing county or state satisfaction scores within your country
  2. Compare same country results relative to previous waves of research and so benchmarking changes and improvements
  3. Make sure that your customer satisfaction survey is not just quantitative in design.  The customer satisfaction toolbox is wide and varied and it is just as important to find out qualitatively what a customer does and doesn’t like and any future changes that need to be made over and above a scalar response to ‘overall, how satisfied are you with the service delivered?’

Finally, to wrap up this week’s ramblings I should point out that when it comes to customer service and customer satisfaction, one issue that transcends all geographies is that it is imperative that the customer is listened to, and feels valued and cared for.  Relationships are key in any business to business market throughout the world, and so invest in your people as they are the face of your business and typically are the driving force behind excellent satisfaction scores whether you are based in Torquay, Tokyo or Timbuktu.

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