University of Southern California

Cultural Sensitivity Can Tame the Tough Customer
New Study Finds a Person's Country of Origin Determines How They Cope with Uncertainty
October 13, 2008 • by News at Marshall

A new study shows that where a customer comes from plays a big role in how services are evaluated.

The study, carried out by Martin Reimann of USC, Ulrich F. Luenemann of California State University Sacramento, and Richard B. Chase of USC Marshall School, examined the impact of uncertainty avoidance on how the perception of a service drives customer satisfaction.

"Uncertainty avoidance indicates the extent to which members of a culture feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. People in uncertainty avoiding cultures are less comfortable, while those from uncertainty accepting cultures are more tolerant of unexpected changes," said Reimann, a USC researcher in marketing and psychology, who began the study while at Stanford University.

The study found that in cultures where uncertainty avoidance plays an important role (for example, where numerous rules and rituals are established to cope with uncertainty in the future), a service must be much closer to what customers expect than in more risk tolerant cultures. Indeed, even small deviations from expectations result in high dissatisfaction among such customers, as their large-scale empirical study revealed.

The authors emphasize that, "there is very little chance to prevent a service defect when the customer encounters a situation or behavior that does not conform to his or her cultural expectations."

For example, if hotel guests with a high degree of uncertainty avoidance do not get their reserved room at check-in, they are much more likely to become agitated and aggressive than those from more uncertainty tolerant cultures. In such situations, the service provider has to consider that this low level of tolerance will almost automatically lead to the perception of low service quality and, in turn, dissatisfaction.

This is true not only for consumers but also for business-to-business (B2B) customers, according to the findings. The study involved 303 Spanish, German, and Swedish business-to-business customers and revealed that clients from cultures with a high degree of uncertainty avoidance (Spain) were less satisfied than low-uncertainty avoidant clients (Sweden) when, as a result of a service defect, their service expectations were not met. Interestingly, this goes counter to the old stereotype that Spain is more laid back than Germany if not Sweden in its population’s attitude toward service performance.

The authors recommend that service quality efforts should be explicitly designed to reflect intercultural differences in operations planning and training of service personnel. In particular, it requires extending the old axiom of "know thy customer," to "really know thy customer."

This can best be accomplished via proactive intercultural preparation programs as critical events in the development of international business and management strategies. "The information gained and behavioral skills learned in such training programs will enable business people to perform intercultural tasks more effectively and to achieve personal and organizational success," says Luenemann, professor of communication studies at California State University Sacramento.

"It's 'surprise reduction'," said co-author Chase, a professor of operations management at the USC Marshall School of Business. "If you’re a manager, you also want to develop different processes for uncertainty avoiding people, as well as communicating to them early on and more frequently so that there are no surprises."

The study published in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Service Research.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.