Beware Cross-Culture Comparisons In International Research

customer experience risk The Verde Group

The other day one of my clients forwarded to me a research report citing that 68% of Chinese shoppers were “happy or overjoyed” with their shopping experiences, versus only 48% of American shoppers. While this is an interesting factoid, the data point suggests a more important topic: how to manage the complexities and risks of CX comparisons across global regions.

As of this writing, Verde is conducting baseline and tracking research in 26 countries across 5 continents. Most of these programs are global in nature, meaning that our clients seek to understand and improve their CX in multiple regions. From this work, I’d offer the following considerations for those embarking international CX measurement initiatives.

 

Culture Influences Scale Response

When measuring customer CX attitudes on an international footprint, it is crucial to acknowledge that different cultures respond to scales differently. For example:

  • Latin American and Middle Eastern survey respondents are more likely to offer responses at the extreme poles of a scale, either positive or negative.
  • Asian survey respondents are more prone to “intermediacy”, with scalar scores clustering in the middle.
  • Verde recently was asked by a client to explore a curious situation in the Benelux region of Europe: customers who were “loyal” by most measures (order size, tenure, etc.) but who also were providing Willingness to Recommend scores of zero. We found that these customers were culturally inclined against brand recommendations of any sort, believing that others should make up their own minds with respect to the products they use and promote.

The reasons for cultural scale bias are many, and broad generalizations are obviously risky.  But the biases are definitely there, and they can impact scalar measures such as NPS. This is a key reason Verde supplements scalar measures with binary “ yes/no” assessment of what problems customers have and how those negative experiences impact NPS.

 

CX Maturity Influences Customer Expectations

A country’s CX culture and infrastructure “maturity” will influence a region’s overall expectation set with respect to product and service quality. I have to confess I don’t know much about Chinese shopping habits (Verde’s work in Asia is primarily in financial services, logistics and agribusiness) but I’d be willing to bet that they are appreciably different than those of the US or Britain. So does “overjoyed” mean the same to a shopper in Guangzhou as to a shopper in Nashville, Tennessee?  Probably not.

 

You Can’t Provide Identical Surveys in Two Different Languages

No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to fully preserve a question’s absolute meaning when translating from one language to another. While not a research example, consider KFC’s experience exporting their slogan “Finger Lickin’ Good” to China. As it turns out, when translated into Chinese the slogan becomes “We’ll eat your fingers off.” Hardly a trivial difference.

Shifts in meaning arising from translation may be important depending on which aspects of the customer experience are being measured and whether the questions of the survey have a high degree of nuance.

This is another reason Verde emphasizes experiential assessment of a customer’s loyalty: experiences are tangible and observable, which makes them easier than attitudes or beliefs to render uniformly across languages.

 

And Also…

These three areas are hardly the only complexities when conducting international CX research.  For example, increasingly stringent privacy regulations in certain regions (e.g. the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation overhaul) may make it more difficult for you to maintain comparable sample composition across countries.

Or you may contend with different countries having very different field interaction preferences (email vs. phone. vs. face-to-face) which can introduce modality bias to the findings.

But let’s not get too lost in the weeds.

Candidly, conducting good CX research with clear insights and actionable findings is hard to do anywhere.  It’s just harder to pull off internationally.  Keeping matters of culture, CX maturity and language in mind upfront during the design stage of your international programs will pay large dividends when it matters most: in interpreting the data and developing credible, defensible action plans to improve your global CX based on the insights arising from your data.

Jon Skinner is Executive Vice President at The Verde Group

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