Despite the political unrest in the region, Middle East (ME) continues to show positive trends of economic growth and recovery. While IMF revised their world economic outlook estimates from October last year, ME will continue to outdo emergent and developed economies of the Eurozone. By allowing the development of ‘free zone’ areas, ME is also expected to procure sizable foreign investment in the near future. The world economic forum cited the Middle Eastern economy at an inflection point, “Several business trends are reshaping the economies of the Middle East. These include the growth of the internet, the expansion of private equity investment, and the emergence of entrepreneurs who are driving diversification away from oil.”
UAE, a prime example of a transitioning ME, has been able to utilize its oil revenues to build a modern metropolis in a bid to improve trade and tourism. A perfect blend of contemporary infrastructure and cultural diversity, UAE has become home to 7.5million expatriates, accounting nearly for 90% of the state’s total population. It’s reliance on foreign workforce comes due to the massive construction and development projects within; and with the continuing growth and expansion, the native population is likely to become more diluted over time, “Managing diversity will undoubtedly become UAE’s biggest challenge. While the current development suggests a move toward a free economy, UAE is expected to retain its (native) cultural values overtime”, says Jalal-u-din Jami, a research analyst at LiveAdmins JLT, Dubai.
Dealing with an assortment of cultural values, languages and ethics, is undoubtedly quite a challenge unto itself. “When cultural differences are understood and utilized as a resource, then all benefit. When they are not the costs are significant”, Managing Cultural Differences, Richard D Mahoney and Elizabeth Evans Baker. With a culturally diverse customer base, including tourists and expatriates, the UAE’s customer service sector is truly, a ‘catch twenty two’.
With the seventh highest per capita income, and an ever expanding community, a business in UAE is an attractive proposition for entrepreneurs, worldwide. Home to some of the most exquisite brands, UAE’s unique market dynamics allows it to provide a diverse mix of customers, ranging from tourists and behavioral buyers to luxury shoppers and fashionistas. However, for any brand or business to become truly successful in an international market, there is a degree of localization and service personalization that it must deliver. “UAE today, has the purchasing power parity, infrastructure, skilled labor and a girth of supporting industries. It’s the ideal place for investment”, explains Jami, adding, “However, businesses must be wary of the population mix and demographics”.
As Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) continues to pour into UAE, the region is likely to attract further business opportunities. Keeping that in mind, local businesses must look to evolve and capitalize the local market share, “With international business and big names (brands) coming to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, local businesses must look to improve service standards”, explains Jami.
Customer service, while mostly advertised as a mid-skilled job requires a varying set of expertise not limited to verbal and non-verbal (electronic) communication, problem solving and dispute management, behavioral and situational analysis, ability to listen and empathize with the customer, etc. While most organizations have formal training procedures in place for recruits, the focus is largely drawn away from people management to process control.
Employees are educated on standards and protocols, and work becomes a series of clear, executable tasks. Any changes made, are usually structural in nature. Processes are redesigned and engineered to promote efficiency and cost effectiveness, while quality benchmarks are set in place to ensure that the policies are implemented and followed throughout the organization, be it at the cost of operational flexibility and innovation.
UAE’s service industry faces a similar problem. An assortment of foreign, skilled and unskilled labor creates a divide between management and the functional staff. Reporting and feedback becomes one dimensional, with policies and procedures being forced down the ladder. This is turn creates ‘system clogs’ where actionable queries are deferred due to the lack of provisional authority, compromising service quality and business outlook in the long run.
Sherry, a Canadian national shared her holiday experience while visiting a hospital in Dubai, UAE, “My friend went to get her health card renewed and saw that there was a huge queue in line. After waiting for half an hour we decided to step out to kill some time, and ‘only’ after informing the guy at the counter. So we come back after lunch and there is a new guy there, so we go up to him and ask if it’s our turn yet? He looks at the slip and goes like, “You are late, now come tomorrow”. My friend starts explaining how we stepped out after informing the guy before him, and basically starts pleading for help. This guy smacks the window pane while pointing his finger towards my friend and yells, ‘Tomorrow! I told you tomorrow!'”
Such instances though rare and few, can significantly affect business reputation. Jami explains that a lack of training is easily reflected in stressful situations, “It can be frustrating. When you are dealing with an array of different customers, it becomes difficult to remain composed at all times. However, that is exactly what your job is as a customer service representative! It is important to keep your emotions in check; after all you are here to solve someone else’s problem.”
Cultures are built over time. Organizations that clearly display cultural symbols, highlight achievements, promote development, and follow strict routines are able to form long lasting impressions on staff. “To imbue goal congruence, the employee must first be able to identify with organization”, explains Jami. This is obviously more relevant for employees working in a foreign environment. When handling a diversified workforce, the management role should evolve beyond reporting and control. By training and developing talent, the organization can instill a sense of security and belonging. Motivated employees are also more likely to take ownership of their work. “Being a front line worker is not an easy job! It comes with the responsibility of representing your company in professional manner with utmost regard for quality and consistency”, explains Jami.
Following are some key management techniques that can contribute towards employee (customer service representative) training and development:
When dealing with a diverse customer base, it is important to recognize customer preferences. Whether they value relationships or service speed and efficiency, the customer service representative (CSR) should be able to detect speech patterns and body languages, and respond accordingly. Customer knowledge is critical for any business. However, when dealing with a culturally diverse customer base, CSRs should always learn to appreciate differences, “Learning a bit about your customer’s culture doesn’t hurt. A phrase here and there can help you warm up relations and build a good repute for yourself and the company”, shares Jami.
Although the native language ‘Arabic’ still retains much of its influence, UAE’s diverse population mix has helped increase the practice of multi-lingual communication with various states. “It depends on how the local community is growing. In some areas you can work without having to learn Arabic at all!” explains Jami. However, language is not the only barrier, as other culture impediments can keep you from connecting with your customer. This is where workforce diversity can provide a business some edge over rival competitions; It’s important to appear culturally open in areas with significant segmentation. Customers are attracted to businesses that reflect their own culture”, explains Jami.
The support industry in UAE has grown tremendously over the last few years. With the increasing local demand and tax friendly zones, Dubai is becoming home to several outsourcing companies. Jami explains that with a girth of foreign labor and state assigned free zones, ‘outsourcing’ becomes a very lucrative business opportunity, “They have labor. People are coming over in search of jobs from all over the Middle East, the Asian Subcontinent and even parts of Europe, and the free-zones are the perfect place to start off”.
Outsourcing companies from Dubai and Abu Dhabi are not only providing services within the UAE, but across the Middle East into parts of the European continent. With multiple business and foreign investment groups seeking development and expansion, outsourcing companies provide cost effective alternatives. Many businesses have outsourced their information technology, human resource and customer service programs. These companies have more access within the labor market and are often well diversified to handle specific, one-off projects, which may not remain profitable in-house.
Help desk outsourcing has become a norm for growing businesses. As the operation grows larger, the customer services representatives are usually the first ones to move out. While some choose to retain overall control, others opt for a more segmented approach in outsourcing. Between the cost advantages and acquisition of technical expertise, outsourcing has been an effective method to reduce managerial workload and enhance the strategic nous.
While serving a much limited purpose today, outsourcing has gained much notoriety with end consumers. Being brandished as a simple cost cutting exercise, outsourcing has become synonymous with third world offshoring. “We are hearing terms like co-sourcing and remote sourcing because organizations want to retain control!” explains Jami, adding, “There has also been a trend of rescinding offshore operations, with companies like GM pulling back portions of its outsourced functions”.
However, businesses in Dubai have a different motivation, “It’s about providing personalization. With a densely segmented consumer base, customer retention is quite the challenge”, shares Jami. Defending a diverse market share, is not as easy as defending a market niche. However, by providing multi-lingual support, businesses can personalize their service, attracting a diverse consumer base in the process.
“The customer service here is just horrendous. The support staff barely takes the call, and when they do, they start chomping up the script like pre-programmed machines! They are barely trained, and you can seldom expect them to resolve an issue without escalating it to the higher management”, shares a frustrated customer, Abu Dhabi.
While the customer presumes anonymity, the business in question has been known to outsource its operations to a local company. “It’s definitely a problem. While most outsourcing firms have stringent quality control processes, their focus leans towards efficiency rather than effectiveness. I mean they are earning based on the number of calls collected, so for them this is business, this is quality and effectiveness”, shares Jami.
A majority of business clients have questioned the motivation of an outsourcing company to provide qualitative service to the clients, on their behalf. With a majority of deals falling short of expectations, businesses have often found the need to supplement the outsourced process with an in house team (be it supervisory). While there has been a push from the end consumer, directing the business to assume more control over support processes, managing support and service in-house may yet not be that feasible for most businesses. “Given the initial outlay and ongoing maintenance costs, outsourcing may be the only viable solution for some businesses. An outsourced company can also provide more hands on call, manage peak hours and report in a more constructive manner”, shares an entrepreneur in Deira, Dubai.
While the role of the support industry will augment with time, diversity management is likely to remain a key issue in the emerging Middle Eastern market. However, despite the challenge of competing in a deeply segmented market, UAE offers businesses a unique opportunity to experiment, innovate and revolutionize current service trends. “With the dynamics such as this, the market is just primed for a complete transformation. Be it through automation or digitization, UAE (businesses) will undoubtedly redefine service. After all, it has the necessary resources and infrastructure to do so”, shares Jami.
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