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Customer Service in a Culturally Diverse World

Customer Service in a Culturally Diverse World 783x400

Those of us who have travelled to a country, where we don’t know the local language, appreciate just how hard it can be to communicate across cultures.

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So, how does cultural diversity impact your level of customer service?

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. Without them, we don’t have a business.  In today’s competitive, culturally diverse marketplace, if you don’t provide good service you won’t attract customers. In any customer service encounter it is the effectiveness of your ability to move from and build on each step that makes it easier to reach your goal i.e. Excellent Customer Service As you know, the first 60 seconds with any customer can determine the overall success of the entire transaction. This is the first step in service process: building. Therefore, the quality of your communication is critical.  


How do we continue to provide superior customer service across cultures?

It’s important to be aware that communicating in a new language isn’t just a simple matter of learning the new language. We may have limited access to language courses and some of us, especially as adults, have difficulty learning new languages. Even the native users of a language have trouble with certain expressions, verbal or non-verbal or accents. People from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) may speak no English at all, or they may speak good English but use words awkwardly or incorrectly. In turn, you may find yourself in a situation where you have broken rapport with your customer, without knowing why.  

Here are some tips from our Events & Tourism module ‘Keeping Patrons Happy’:  

Avoid Insults There are many insulting words which refer to people from other races and cultures. Don’t use them, and don’t encourage other people to use them by laughing at them. Be sensitive to how people like to speak about themselves. If in doubt, ask them. Also keep in mind that people from different racial backgrounds may have taken the approach of “joining in” on jokes as it is easier that asking people to stop. Don’t assume that their participation condones these practices.  


Techniques for Providing Good Service to Customers with Non-English Speaking Backgrounds

Use the Clarify and Confirm approach:


  • Speak slowly (but not loudly)
  • Use simple words
  • Use simple sentence structures
  • Listen very carefully
  • Use open questions to get a full picture:
    • ‘Where will you use it?”
    • ‘What colours do you like?”


  • Repeat what you understand they want: “You want a white one. Is that right?”
  • Get feedback from the customer: “No”, ‘‘Yes”, “Bigger”, ‘Another one”, etc.

  If your customer knows no English at all:

  • Ideally, find a translator once you have found out their language
  • Keep your normal procedures in mind:
    • make them welcome with a smile,
    • clarify and confirm their needs
    • complete sale and make a friendly farewell
  • Even people with no English will know a word or two. E.g., Yes and No. Listen for the words they know, and try to use those
  • Use body language. For example, use gestures: pointing, shaking and nodding head
  • Draw pictures and diagrams if necessary
  • Speak in English; otherwise the encounter is unnaturally silent. Also your voice itself conveys meaning. An example is when your voice rises when asking a question
  • Be very good-natured and patient!


Some Common Causes of Misunderstandings

People whose main language is not English can, at times, sound rude when they speak in English, even though this is the last thing they intend. Be aware that, native English speakers try not to say things too directly. This is a subtlety in the way English is spoken that you may not even be aware of yourself because it is so natural to you. It’s easy to imagine, then, that it is often completely unknown by people from different backgrounds – and where these subtleties are known, they create an even greater challenge with a much higher language skill being needed. As a result customers with little English sometimes do not “soften” their language and speak very directly. This can come across as rudeness; unless you understood why this occurs.  


Consider some of the ways native English speakers use language to sound polite:

  • We often ask a question when we want something rather than simply stating that we want it, e.g. “Do you mind if …
  • We use “please”, “thank-you” and sorry’ a lot. Many cultures do not use “please” and ‘thank you” in commercial transactions, such as shopping. “Sorry” is used to beg forgiveness, not for minor incidents like bumping into someone in a lift, or to interrupt someone.


We start off our requests with softeners like:

  • “Could I try the bigger size?”
  • ‘Would you mind if I tested it out before I bought it?”
  • ‘I wonder if I could exchange this one for that one?”
  • “Excuse me, could I have it wrapped?”
  • “I’m sorry to trouble you but I’d like to try this on again.’


In the absence of “softeners” people from non-English backgrounds may communicate too directly e.g.

  • I want that
  • Give me two
  • Serve me
  • Wrap it up

Being aware that this type of direct speech does not mean your customer is being deliberately rude sets you apart from customer service staff who do not understand this.

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This level of understanding removes a barrier between you and your customer, which will significantly impact their impression your whole service experience.


Excerpt from Keeping Patrons Happy   For more information on how The Australian College of Commerce and Management can help you and your business with any training needs - Call 1800 111 700, email or visit –          

Rachel Flannery

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