The Role of Cultures in Phone Use

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OMAHA, NE - One of the most significant issues facing teleservices managers when designing international sales and marketing programs is the diverse ways that people in different countries feel about using the phone for business.

Differences are profound. Customers in the UK love to chat on the phone while those in Spain are leery and the French use the phone to complain more than anybody else.

These are part of the findings in a research project the prestigious Henley Centre in the UK carried out for the Euroteleculture Consortium, a joint venture sponsored by Sitel, British Telecom, IBM, O&M Teleservices, and The Rover Group.

The purpose of the research was to better identify and understand European attitudes about using the telephone for customer communications. Here are some of the key findings:

-- Europeans are generally happy and confident about using the telephone. However, those in the North (Germany, the Netherlands and the UK) are significantly more comfortable in their approach than those in the South (Italy, Spain and France).

To highlight these variations, the research identified four customer types:

1- Telephiles are positive about the telephone. They are heavy users, enjoy using it are happy to receive outbound calls. They are also positive about developing relationships with businesses over the telephone.

2- Protectionists are positive about using the phone. They are confident about making calls, but they do not want relationships with businesses.

3- Functionals, while confident about using the phone, do not enjoy using it.

4- Telephobes express negative attitudes about using the telephone. They show low levels of confidence and enjoyment regarding the telephone and dislike receiving outbound calls for business purposes.

-- The more confidence a consumer has in the product and the company, the more willing they are to make a purchase over the telephone.

-- Respondents in every country said the same factors dominated their decision to buy a company's products or services over the telephone:

The company has a reputation for quality.

They have dealt satisfactorily with the company in the past.

It is a company they feel they can trust.

Respondents in all the countries expressed a great deal of resistance to outbound cold calls for sales purposes. Calls positioned as service calls meet much less resistance.

Most European consumers using the phone for business

activities are initiating time-sensitive transactions. The most common business reasons for using the phone included:

Seeking repair service.

Accessing leisure or entertainment (ordering take-out food, making hotel reservations).

Inquiring about bills or invoices.

Almost 65 percent of the respondents use the phone to get service or repairs for cars or household goods, compared with 37 percent who actually buy goods or services using the phone. Accessing both was the most frequent telephone-based activity.

With the exception of Italy, all consumers agreed that companies should obtain permission before making calls to the home, and the majority would like to register refusal to receive cold calls at home.

More than half the sample except those in the Netherlands said they are more likely to buy again from a company that keeps in touch.

The majority of consumers agree that a careline (customer service line) is useful when they have a complaint or question. Most say a careline is expected.

Customer service lines increase consumers' trust in the company in all markets except Germany, which is consistent with earlier studies showing that Germans require written evidence to trust any business transaction.

Most of the respondents do not think customer service lines are a gimmick. However, very few respondents who had used customer service lines say the experience was positive.

Europeans, the research showed, felt a call was well handled when the telerep was knowledgeable, professional, polite and did what she promised.

Clearly, the research shows that Europe offers significant opportunities for companies eager to acquire new customers and to maintain contact with existing customers.

But it also shows that telemarketers need to keep the following considerations in mind:

q Target the right customers

q Reassure nervous consumers

q Understand differing service preferences

q Serve, don't sell

q Tailor the approach to the local market

The last point is the most critical: Attitudes about using the telephone for business are sufficiently different among countries to require an informed, tailored approach to every local market, i.e. customize teleservices programs for each country.

Barry Major is president of Sitel North America

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