The Bulgaria – US Gap.   Is it a Bridge Too Far?

A simple cultural training programme, for a call centre in Bulgaria, has rapidly grown into a complex and vivid example of how relatively sympathetic cultures and countries can throw up major gaps in values and understanding, highlighting the differences in values between the old communist societies and the US customer-centric society.

The Scenario

The task was to assist a Bulgarian call centre team to improve the quality of their soft skills and politeness as they served a US customer base (remotely.)

On the surface the mission seemed achievable and straightforward. The Bulgarians would be shown US norms of behaviour around US good manners and expressions of appreciation for their loyalty as customers. It did not, at first, seem overly complex.

By the way – the team were performing well as a call centre, dealing with technical queries, arriving on time and getting the call centre job done to a high standard.

Then came some details, about what incidents had occurred and, suddenly, this looked like a much bigger job.

The Cultural Issues

Maybe you can start to imagine the mismatch in communication based on the different worlds and different cultural values of the two countries.

Bulgaria was under the Soviet spell for a long time and still has a special relationship with Russia. The synthetic, peach culture; “How are you this fine day?” and “Thank you so much for your custom” do not trip lightly from the Bulgarian tongue and there is no reason why they should.

Under communism, profit was illegal and customers were just fellow travelers in an equal world of scarcity. If you were brought up with no choice, why should a customer choosing to call you, and not someone else, matter? – To the company that spent $$millions they need that loyalty. For you the one choice shopper, it is fairly meaningless.

In communist societies in general and Bulgarian communities in particular, a relationship is an important thing. It takes time to exchange, build trust and establish that the other party are unlikely to do you harm with a betraying phone call to the authorities. Add to this the East – West propaganda about the US being an “Imperialist, free-market capitalist, indulgent consumer society that is over-bloated and corrupt”, and you may begin to see where the gaps appear between desired behaviour and actual behaviour.

When the Bulgarian call centre operative takes the next call, they are fully aware of how little, compared to the caller, they have, how limited their immediate options are, and how unconsciously privileged the caller is.

From this starting point it is easier to see that saying “thank you” a lot may begin to stick in the Bulgarian throat. That and the fact that smiling at a stranger is seen as a sign of insanity in Bulgaria!

As the assignment unfolded, the parallels between an old oppressive authoritarian regime and a free market democracy became more and more clear.

Add in the technical reality of the call centre operative being monitored and recorded by supervisors and the communist irony becomes almost absurd.

So, What is the answer? What is the solution? How can we reconcile the called with the caller and make something beautiful, profitable and sustainable?

More later…

Matthew Hill is an intercultural trainer and leadership coach
Telephone 07813 760 711

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This entry was posted on Saturday, November 6th, 2010 at 12:56 pm and is filed under cross-cultural communication, cross-cultural differences, Europe, General, international business, North America . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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