Cultural Bridge

Cultural Bridge

What makes a stellar offshore team?

Toronto born Eric Muth and his firm Support Adventure specialize in providing offshore technical support & customer service solutions of excellent quality. In this series of articles, Eric will share some of his experience in making his outsourcing solutions a success for everyone involved.

By Eric Muth (Founder, Support Adventure)

English is the world’s most popular second language (603 million L2 speakers) and thus many people in all corners of the world speak it. However, just because they can speak the language does not mean they share our cultural values, ways of expressing our feelings, and other subtle modes of communication. In this article I will detail how I have overcome these challenges which can make or break an offshoring team’s success.

The Subtlety of English

We native English speakers are, compared to many other cultures, incredibly indirect in our communication. We use subtle forms of non-verbal communication to demonstrate our true thoughts and feelings, often saying one thing and meaning another.

With my business in Belgrade, which serves the UK & Canadian markets, I solve this problem by hiring native English speakers based here to be a part of our team. My Serbian staff members get the experience of working and socializing with native English speakers directly and in person. It makes a big difference. This gives non-native speakers a chance to really learn and understand how we communicate verbally and non-verbally, knowledge which helps them when communicating via e-mail and telephone.

Watching the English – Teaching Culturally Specific Knowledge

Some behavioural tendencies within English culture, especially that of the United Kingdom, can be confusing to people who didn’t grow up in that culture.

Years ago when I was moving to England I found a great book on the subject, Watching the English by Kate Fox. Written by an anthropologist who did a study of the customs of her own people, the book has fascinating chapters on topics such as conversational codes, workplace etiquette, humour rules and just about every other topic of English life.

I have my trainees read select chapters of the book. They then combine the direct experience of working and socializing with native English speakers with the well explained cultural tendencies described in the book. This ultimately makes it easier for my staff members to understand the people who they are assisting and how they would like to be treated.

Location, Location, Location

My choice of Belgrade, Serbia as a place to hire staff makes a lot of sense because, in addition to being a vibrant metropolis that my native English-speaking staff love living in, the people here speak excellent English and find they have a lot in common culturally with people from English-speaking countries.
Despite the fact that the most powerful countries of the English-speaking world collectively bombed Belgrade in 1999 to overthrow the Milosevic dictatorship, the people in Serbia love American culture since they grew up immersed in its movies, television and music.

The television programs here use subtitles for translation, leaving Serbs to listen to the English language while reading translations in their own language. This means that Serbs have a lifetime of quality exposure to the English language, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe which replace the English language audio with dubbing of the local language. The result is that the technicians on my team here speak, write and understand English better than some Polish technicians I have met who have already lived in London for 10 years.

Inevitably, my Serbian members of staff do have noticeable Eastern European accents, but, with choosing the right candidates, there has never been a problem with achieving good communication with clients in the UK or Canada. I have also noticed that in working with native English speakers and their ongoing interactions with the clients, my Serbian staff members increasingly acquire our manner of speaking naturally.

Add all of that to the cultural disposition of Serbs, and their naturally friendly and warm nature towards people from different countries, and the result is that people in English-speaking countries love to speak with my Serbian staff members.

I’m sure there are many other parts of the world which have the same level of compatibility with English clients and I plan to explore these eventually. For the time being, Serbia has been great for this.

Values, values, values

In most countries around the world there’s a class of well-educated people who tend to speak English as a second language with great skill. They also share many of the western middle class values that your client-base cherishes. You want to hire this type of person abroad, not just the cheapest staff you can find. This, for me, has proven very important.

Currently I have both a certified psychoanalyst and a trained economist on staff as remote support technicians for the UK because the pay and working conditions I offer are better than their original professions offer in Serbia. Since we come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, we are able to understand each other quite well and treat each other more or less as equals while working as a team. I try not to be so much of a boss as I am their representative and liaison with the client and someone who holds them accountable to reaching the expectations we have all agreed on.

I’ve heard many stories of how it is to work in larger call centres in India or The Philippines and it seems that the approach to recruitment and management is much different. I’m not trying to hire the cheapest possible labour and then disciplining them. I’m hiring people who have a large amount of life experience and intelligence and bring very good sensibilities that naturally help them excel in their positions.

Conclusion: Create a solid bridge!

I will add one final point. I have met the directors of all my client companies in person and we have a face to face relationship, the essence of which I extend to the people I hire, who I recruit directly. This is the final step in strengthening the cultural bridge that makes offshoring work.

What many business owners are afraid of when offshoring their customer service and IT help desk to another country is that the quality of their service will decline and that their clients will be appalled. In this article I believe I have managed to touch on how I have avoided this from happening when people hire my company to assist them. I hope this has been helpful.

Stay tuned for my newsletter next week in which I will talk about making the best communication and team building between in-house employees and outsourced staff abroad.