International Business: Listening worldwide to the intercultural voice of the customer

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 1:55 a.m. MDT

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Wow…love the test, fun and the were spot on (sic),” read one online testimonial by a “happy customer” named Sally. Curiously, the next alleged review from “John” is identical, “wow… love the test, fun and the were spot on.”

Outsourcing reputation management to someone who barely speaks your language and who will auto-post fake testimonials online is not the most intelligent way to run a business. A smarter and increasingly more popular practice is to ask real customers what they think via simple “voice of the customer” surveys —questionnaires that rank service and provide feedback to the vendor.

As with most customer-service techniques, best practices for such a survey will vary from one culture to another. To learn some of these intercultural survey practices, I spoke with Lonnie Mayne, chief experience officer at Mindshare Technologies, who had great ideas for collecting and managing feedback for the company's international clients.

Mindshare clients have locations in more than 125 countries. When these companies use web surveys and automated phone surveys to collect feedback worldwide, Mindshare must consider the potential impact of intercultural differences. This international awareness helps both Mindshare and its customers to expand globally.

Cultural survey adaptation

“Of the customer feedback we process for many clients worldwide, 60 percent is positive, but that percentage varies greatly by region and culture,” explains Mayne. “In Japan, companies find it very difficult to earn a perfect five-out-of-five customer rating, and companies find it easier to do so in Latin America, just as customer feedback in Tennessee tends to be more positive than feedback in New York.”

To gain more detailed information from Japanese customers who rarely award perfect scores, Mindshare might use a broader rating scale of 1 to 10 instead of 1 to 5. In Germany, Mindshare knows clients do not want to receive a 5 out of 5; although the highest ranking on a scale of 1 to 5 might be “excellent” in the United States, the lowest number, 1, is typically associated with the best ranking in German surveys.

The method of collecting responses also differs by culture. Web surveys are very successful in Canada and really dominate in Europe, but the phone is a more effective medium in the Middle East. Surveys taken over SMS are more popular in Europe than in the United States.

Global response reporting

Reporting must also be adapted to the needs of Mindshare customers; 20 percent of companies hiring Mindshare have an international presence. Generated reports are specific to each user by locale and other regional information, so companies receive highly localized feedback. Some global companies need daily report delivery at midnight — requiring Mindshare to time reports for “24 midnights” worldwide — while others need instant alerts.

“Right now, a car rental branch manager in France is going out to clean a vehicle because someone took a survey on their mobile phone and said the car smelled like smoke,” explains Mayne. “Customers do not need to wait for reports. Any manager in the world can have real-time report access and take immediate action, so no other customer complains about the same problem.”

Multilingual text analytics

Anyone who has taken Mindshare surveys will notice they are very simple and concise. For example, the English and Spanish survey for Arby’s restaurants includes only a handful of questions and a place to add comments. Such short questionnaires are easy to translate because they do not include much text, but how does a survey company stay in business or provide valuable feedback with such short, reusable surveys?

“Only about 10 to 15 percent of the value Mindshare offers is in survey collection,” says Mayne. “The rest of the value we bring is in actionable reporting for the entire organization.”

This reporting is not merely a matter of charting numeric ratings awarded by customers. Because the surveys are so concise, 60 percent of all feedback comes from the unstructured comments sections placed strategically throughout the survey. Automatic extraction of important information from thousands of free-form comments is no trivial task.

Mindshare uses natural language processing of IBM’s content analytics to extract keywords and analyze patterns. In multiple languages, the technology can monitor the appearance of any important words and phrases that might have serious legal implications such as “water on the floor” or “slip.” Frequent repetition of the word “pickles” can signal that people are particular about their pickle placement on a hamburger.

Some results are particularly insightful when paired with other information. For one restaurant outside the United States, Mindshare identified a high correlation between the words “cup” and “dry cleaning.” This finding quickly revealed that a particular brand of beverage cup lids was prone to leak or come loose, thus allowing the company to remedy the situation.

International mindset

Mindshare may not yet be the world’s largest company offering customer survey and enterprise feedback management, but the company is preparing for international growth by openly accommodating their clients’ global and intercultural needs. Perhaps some of the cultural awareness that drives Mindshare’s international flare springs from its headquarter location in Utah, which has the highest percentage of foreign language speakers in the United States.

Those language skills, which NPR recently labeled “Utah’s secret economic weapon,” have come in handy. One survey client was greatly impressed Mindshare could send a Utah-based, Tagalog-speaking employee to its office in the Philippines to provide onsite training, and buzz of that success story spread quickly through dozens of the client’s offices worldwide. Clients logging on to a conference call with a Japanese interpreter have been equally impressed and surprised when greeted by Japanese-speaking Americans from Mindshare.

Sixty percent of global marketers are shifting budgets to focus on new markets for growth, and 95 percent anticipate new growth will come from outside the United States, according to a survey by the World Federation of Advertisers. Companies like Mindshare that consciously choose to adapt products and services to other markets are more likely to see the benefits of that growth.

Companies that choose to be aware of such international opportunities will benefit much like those that choose to actively become aware of the good and bad reported via customer surveys. Those that ignore such threats and opportunities are like the mythical ostrich burying its head in the sand.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company