The Challenges of International Customer Service

By: Tom Senkus

If your business has decided to expand to new countries, there are a number of challenges that your business must anticipate in order to successfully establish itself. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most common challenges that occur with international customer service.

Language Barriers

Of all challenges, language barriers can be the most difficult for new businesses. You may be successful at starting a company in new international markets, but speaking to customers clearly in their native languages is a non-negotiable key to integration. Having bilingual staff can help ease this process, but be aware: there aren’t catch-all languages for every target market, even if English is considered the lingua franca of international business.

For reference, the 10 most commonly spoken languages are, in order of users worldwide are:

  • Mandarin Chinese (1.2 billion)

  • Spanish (400 million)

  • English (360 million)

  • Hindi (350 million)

  • Arabic (250 million)

  • Portuguese (215 million)

  • Bengali (170 million)

  • Russian (170 million)

  • Japanese (130 million)

  • Punjabi/Lahnda (100 million)

Covering each of these languages comprehensively can be difficult for any business, especially if they are startups or small business that may have trouble hiring competent speakers. This also means that miscommunications can occur which may end up costing your business and alienating those who feel that your organization considers their needs as an afterthought.

However, there are also regional dialects that may affect how your company is perceived. For instance, if you’re trying to blend into a new English-speaking market, a person with an Irish accent may be unintelligible or it may be a turn off to those who are used to Americanized English. Similarly, a French speaker in France may not be adequate for handling Cajun and Creole dialects of the United States. This close-but-not-quite assimilation can spell trouble for your business, especially if you’re looking to pass your company off with seamless authenticity.

Adhering to Customs

One of the more sensitive topics for international customer service is that of a country’s or region’s customs. This can include when people go to work or when they like to relax, when they reserve time for handling their personal business, or when they simply want to be left alone. For instance, even neighboring countries like Israel and Jordan have completely different customs and workweeks, with Jordan employing a Mon – Fri schedule; Israel, by contrast, starts its workweek on Sunday and ends on Thursday. Furthermore, depending on the predominant religions and financial customs, certain holidays can occur at seemingly random intervals. As an example, Scotland’s summer bank holiday occurs the last Monday of August, whereas England, Northern Ireland and Wales observe the same summer bank holiday on the first Monday of August.

Time Zones

Just as a culture’s idiosyncrasies form the fabric of their culture, the same goes for time zones where a company is located versus how your business operates internationally.

Imagine if you only offered customer service for your US-based company during the hours of 9 am – 5 pm EST. While you may adjust these hours to incorporate the West Coast, which is 3 hours behind, how would your company handle customer inquiries coming from the United Kingdom, which is 5 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone? Either your company would have to adjust its hours, offer limited service during “off hours,” provide international toll free numbers available 24/7, or accommodate customer service inquiries according to which part of the 9 to 5 scheme the country is currently in.

That’s why it’s crucial to make sure that the customer service you provide internationally syncs up with where those people are located during the progression of their day. As a side note, for those working in financial industries or in businesses that handle money, matters can be complicated when banks delay transactions over the weekend, sometimes holding up customer transfers until both countries are open for business.

Author Bio: Tom Senkus is an international traveler and freelance writer. A US-born citizen and former resident of the UK, Tom inherently understands business differences that occur globally. For more info, visit

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