Kiwi customer service through the eyes of new migrants

There isn’t much that falls below the high expectations of new migrants about New Zealand. OK, putting side the shocking state of our housing stock, there isn’t much else.

One thing that does surprise, and often not in a good way, is our customer service. Our Listening Project* with new migrants (defined as less than two years in New Zealand) surfaced a surprising anomaly. New migrants are rather taken aback by our friendly and informal style of interaction. They love our friendliness overall, they enjoy our more casual approach to interactions between employees and their managers, they appreciate the kindness of strangers and the helpfulness of professionals. But when it comes to customer service, the context of their experience in their own countries makes our laid back style unsettling and not at all reassuring.

“The person I spoke to was really nice and friendly and we chatted for quite a long time. But after the call, I wasn’t sure if he was going to actually do anything.”

“They’re super friendly but I’m used to dealing with someone who is super efficient and it’s just quick and fast and it’s done.”

“What I like is that people are very polite and friendly. And I feel bad because I want it to be more like talking to a business person. This is what I’m used to you see.”

We know that people from different cultures have different channel preferences, for example personal vs. online and also that they often select online options because it is easier for ratings of language or to give more time to consider unfamiliar options.

But not everything can be achieved online, especially if, like new migrants, you have no history in New Zealand, no previous providers, references, purchasing history etc. So personal contact, either face to face or on the telephone, is a fact of life for our new New Zealanders.

They are often more unsure of themselves in personal interactions than a Kiwi would be, perhaps because of language barriers and the weird Kiwi accent that we don’t think we have can be a challenge even for those with good English fluency. Plus, they won’t know our processes or our terminology.

Humanised virtual assistants are one solution, as their reading of emotions will help ease the interactions. They can still exude that Kiwi friendliness and they can be drilled in being clear what actions will be taken. For real humans, summarising at the end of the call what actions will be taken will allay the uncertainty. (A lot of Kiwis would probably appreciate that too).

Face-to-face interactions are equally likely to be misunderstood for cultural reasons. Dining out for example is another shock for new migrants. Despite having a strong food culture, new migrants don’t think we have an eating culture. By that they mean the dining experience compared to their own culture of slow dining.

“As soon as you sit down there’s the waiter with the menu and straight away they want your order. When we go to a restaurant we first have a drink and then we order, it’s more relaxed than here.”

“A meal with friends is the whole evening in my country which is very different here. You feel under pressure to choose your food and they take away the plates before you’ve finished digesting and then the bill comes.”

Again, although there are different dining styles across the various ethnic groups who make New Zealand home, this was a common view held by European migrants, Asian migrants, South Africans and Filipinos.

But let’s end on a high note. It’s not all bad news, especially where it concerns honesty and transparency when shopping.

“When we were buying a fan, I saw from a price comparison app that another store was selling the fan at a cheaper price. I then showed the shopkeeper and he said they could sell it at the same price to us. So we decided to buy it from them (Harvey Norman). I really think this is great because this wouldn’t happen in China.”

So what’s to be done? We definitely don’t want to suppress our Kiwi friendliness, so instead developing a bit of cultural acumen that enables customer experience staff to adapt to alternative ways of experiencing the world would be one step in the right direction.

Understanding that different cultures interpret our behaviour through a different lens from a first generation Kiwi despite the use of a common language.

So less “have a nice day” even though in New Zealand we really mean it, and more “I’m on to that”. 

*The Listening Project: New New Zealanders is TRA’s 4th immersive research project. It follows NZ’s new migrants to truly understand their whole world as they settle into their new lives as Kiwis. The Listening Project: New New Zealanders was carried out by Antonia Mann, Vanisha Narsey and Colleen Ryan. 

  • Colleen Ryan is a partner at TRA. 

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