Using Cross-Cultural Psychology to Help International Companies Build Relationships in India

Author: Heena Jabeen | Team- Customer Relationship Management | Maier+Vidorno
First published in May 2016

Globalization has made the world accessible from one point to any other but at the same time it has immensely increased the competition. Of course, we can say that the best product or the best service provider is the winner, but we are an emotional species and so the provider is almost always as important as the service or product. Before anything else, customers look for a trustworthy relationship and there are three subsets of this trust:

    • Service/product quality
    • Reputation of the provider (what other customers have to say about the provider)
    • Point of contact (who you are interacting with)

The way we express emotions varies from person-to-person across every country, and understanding culture plays a vital role in managing relationships to ensure your team generates trust with each interaction and so builds reputation no matter the country.
Often perceptions of service satisfaction differ from country to country and relationship management is the strategic tool to add value to the service/ product by understanding the perception of the customer. When you build a relationship with your customer, he will be open to giving you suggestions for improvement and so helping you build quality and reputation. Once you implement the suggestions of the customer, he becomes the brand ambassador for that particular product or service which in return boosts his trust in you further.

The Culture Dimensions

Culture has an important influence on customer relationship, as expectations of service quality and customer satisfaction differ from culture to culture. Prominent scholars like Edward T. Hall distinguish between high- and low-context cultures, while Geert Hofstede describes five dimensions to measure the differences between cultures: individualism-collectivism (IDV); uncertainty avoidance (UAI); power distance (PDI -strength of social hierarchy); masculinity-femininity (MAS – task orientation versus person-orientation) & long-term orientation (LTO).

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This framework helps highlight certain differences between Indian and other cultures and so to analyse how to adapt communication appropriately. There is a lot of analysis about which countries fit where on each dimension.
Indians as a relatively high-context people who might usually not spend too much time with explanation in a meeting or would not take punctuality too seriously. This is often hard for people from relatively lower context cultures (Germany, Sweden, Japan etc.) where there is much higher cultural emphasis on attention to detail and the value of punctuality. These differences have to be taken into account when building relationships – as well as different forms of hierarchy in the culture.
There also have been instances where something as simple as a handshake has ruined an otherwise a perfect business deal. For instance, greetings in Indian culture is mostly a graceful “Namaskaar” or sometimes touching the feet of elders therefore, for most of Indians handshake is just a western style of greeting and is considered a part of general communication with no subsequent interpretations whereas, a firm and strong handshake can be interpreted as a green signal for successful business deal in USA.
Cultural differences can lead to culture shocks, which in turn lead to misunderstanding and thus business failure. It surely is essential to understand the basics of the customer’s deep rooted culture. Providing excellent customer interaction in culturally diverse customer segments effectively means managing your interaction in a culturally appropriate and responsive way.

CRM for India

India itself is culturally diverse; every corner has a language and traditions of its own. But the general aura is quite applicable to the whole country [– “we are like that only” is a common phrase to explain most elements of pan-Indian culture]. Below are a few points to help visitors construct and maintain business relationships in India:

      • Most Indians take great pride in living in joint families – which also means people don’t believe in too much of privacy. A little personal touch is always a good way to go.
      • Do not be surprised if you always hear “yes” as it could also mean “no” or “may be”. It is a bit difficult to find out the specifics unless you make your needs absolutely clear and loud.
      • You will probably find that IST in India means Indian Stretchable Time. It doesn’t mean you will always have to wait and most of the times there could be genuine reasons for delay for e.g. the bad traffic. Also India is the only home of the verb “prepone” – here you can shift the timing of the meeting forwards as well as backwards.
      • Knowledge is universal in gaining any customer’s trust be it India, Germany or Japan.
      • Common Sense: Putting yourself onto the client’s shoes and not just following the procedures can place the customer into a comfortable situation to discuss in detail and help you get the insights.
      • A business promise in a country like Germany is always supposed to be in a written form but in India verbal promises are also often used. Thus, it would be your responsibility to make sure having a written document for important business matters.
      • Although tea was introduced by the British, it is now an integral part of the Indian culture. Make sure to offer a cup before you sit down to discuss.

Therefore, in the journey from a Suit to a Dhoti (the traditional white cloth worn by Indian men), one of the major hurdles is the cultural difference and understanding customer’s emotions. Once you start looking at things from your Indian customers’ point of view with no conflict in heart, you are on the way to earn satisfied customers who trust you and become assets for your business.