"Challenges of Managing & Motivating a Culturally Diverse Customer Service Team a Continent Away"

Posted on September 29, 2009 by

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Voice123 would like to offer special thank you to a great customer service software company, Parature, for allowing me to write about my challenges of managing a customer service team in two different cultures. If you look at their client list, you will see why this was a great honor for me to be able to write about Voice123.com’s customer service team for such a well-known, distinguished company. You can read the original post here, or see below:

“I am a customer service manager at Voice123.com, and a challenge I face is managing the staff we employ in Bogota, Colombia from the offices we have in New York City, NY. When I took this job as Customer Service/Quality Assurance/Blogger/Public Relations manager at Voice123, I understood ahead of time what challenges were ahead of me. I was not told what the challenges were, but my past experience in traveling to other countries filled me with the knowledge of how businesses in the United States were viewed internationally. I also understood that there are countries that view the United States as ‘1st World’, as if to say that their own country must be ‘3rd World’ by comparison. Luckily, traveling has also taught me that many times people who believe their country is inferior to the United States, may simply need to be reminded as to how the world is pretty much the same no matter where you go.

Back in 1992, I read a book called ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill. In this book, he describes very basic needs shared by all human beings, or at least, that is my interpretation of his writing behind his Philosophy of Success:

  • The need to achieve prosperity
  • The need to feel appreciated
  • The need to love and be loved
  • The need to be successful

Considering these four ‘needs’, then forgetting where someone was born or their views of the United States (because sometimes that opinion is not favorable), is how I approached my position at Voice123 when I was hired. I approached everyone with a clean slate. I never talked down about people in the United States to explain a cultural difference, nor did I ever say one country was better than the other. In return, I expected the same from the staff in Colombia. Our team has always had a ’silent pact of trust’ that we would never insult the culture of another person. This was not stated by me, nor was it ever discussed because I wanted our customer service team to be ‘people of actions’, not just words and mission statements. To build trust, unity, and understanding, we did the following:

  • When visiting other countries, Colombia or United States, our staff stays at other staff member’s houses and apartments, no matter what the conditions, and we commute to work together to get the experience.
  • Understanding the love of music that exists in Colombia, and knowing that people who love the same music share an instant bond, I hooked up Xbox Live in Bogota, Colombia and played a popular music-video game called Rockband from my apartment in New York. This was a team event that we still do to this day, and it has become a great way for our team to release stress.
  • I also found out that there is a heavy influence of US music and art culture in Colombia.
  • I agreed to learn the Latin American way of speaking Spanish, if they agreed to learn North American English.
  • As a former actor, I spoke at student seminars when invited by other members of my staff studying acting and film in Colombia.
  • In return, when they visit New York City, I have taken them to classes that I attended to give them a better understanding of what takes place in the United States.

Generally, we keep a ‘family attitude’ within our staff, and never say things like, ‘Do it this way because it works in the United States.’ or ‘That is how Colombia works, so deal with it.’ I understand that would be a mistake because many of the business schools in Colombia teach students, and I have been told this is something teachers always say in Bogota, ‘You have to learn English because it is the business language of the United States!’ I have found that this type of teaching creates more resentment towards United States culture than anything our Presidents may decide on. (haha) This type of teaching makes Colombian residents feel as if their language is somehow ‘not good enough’.

Meanwhile, when my staff visits New York City, they have an easier time of it than I do in Bogota because they are bilingual, and New York City is 50% Spanish-speaking. I am still learning Spanish, so I still need a chaperone when I visit Bogota.

One important thing to all of this…is the difference in business cultures. In Colombia, it is very easy to just fire someone you simply do not like, where in the United States, we have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which protects employees against wrongful termination, among many other things. As a manager (and former EEOC insurance claims assistant with AIG), I promised myself when starting that I would do my best to be as fair as possible in all situations, based on what I learned as a claims assistant at AIG. I also did something unique for someone working in Colombia, which has yet to adopt laws that protect people from being fired or not hired due to their age. I promised myself that I would hold onto staff for as long as possible for one reason…I have seen high turnover rates in customer service affect the quality of customer service. I also remember that the person who founded Wal-Mart named his original cashiers ‘associates’ and as stockholders, these employees helped Wal-Mart get off the ground because they trusted in their leader, and felt appreciated as part of a team.

This type of behavior is a business culture that the staff from Colombia enjoys…feeling appreciated for hard work, and knowing that if they work hard, they will be appreciated. I acknowledge that at first, not every staff member was on-board with me, and some did quit, but that is the understanding at Voice123…”I will look out for you, if you look out for me and Voice123. If you want no part of it, it is ok to leave. We bare no ill-will and will help you in the future.”

Of course, I should mention what tools we use to keep in touch during the work day. That is quite simple:

  • SkypeWebcams
  • Live Streaming of my office and theirs
  • Gotomeeting

Some have viewed this type of communicating, where we are simply watching each other work, as maybe ’spying’, but it is nothing like that at all. We are a very happy staff that actually misses working with each other in the same office. The beauty of the Voice123 staff members in Colombia are their warm hearts, and hospitality, which I personally find to be lacking in today’s United States customer service.

This in turn has made me a perfect fit, as I am working with people who validate my understanding of the need for hospitality in customer service. It is true, that I play a role in Voice123 as one who translate what is really being said to our customer service staff. The main reason for this is that the Colombian staff does not understand the United States culture of sarcasm, and double-meanings, and with that, I know my work is always cut out for me.

Communicating via Skype and typing commands to people can sometimes be misinterpreted, but when this happens, we call each other and talk about it. I also sometimes jump on Skype on weekends just to talk to staff and see how things are going. I do this because I know I am working with truly beautiful, caring people. To date, we have had no issues of political conversations, prejudices, or cultural differences, and I do not think we will because our company is gaining a reputation in Bogota, Colombia as being a wonderful place to work that is open-minded, caring, and expects one to achieve for the benefit of the employee and Voice123. On top of that…their managers ask staff to play Rockband!

Final note…You may read back through this and notice something I did not do. I never referred to people from the United States as ‘Americans’. To the people of Colombia, they consider themselves ‘Latin Americans’, so it is viewed as arrogant to say one country can hold the title ‘American’. I pay attention to these details out of respect for their beliefs, and they respect mine in return. I always view this staff at Voice123 as people I learn a great deal from, even if I am one of the oldest staff members at 36 years old.

I hope my experience has served you as well,
Steven Lowell”

Perhaps the sign that you are truly in a job you love is when someone asks you, ‘What challenges do you face?’, and you find yourself smiling as you answer. The team at Voice123 is very special to me, and we work very hard to make sure all of our Voice123 customers find voice talent and find voice over work.

Best regards,

Voice123 - The Voice Marketplace
Steven Lowell
Public Relations Manager
My Blog
Twitter: @voice123dotcom