Note: this article was edited in July 2017 to include performance scores for 201

Cross-cultural differences have always been a fascinating topic for me. Growing up Asian in America, I frequently experienced the tension between the Eastern and Western ways of doing or saying things. Now living in Cambodia and working at Web Essentials for the last 7 years, I see with great interest similar challenges in the collaborations between our Cambodian teams and our European clients. Our staff are more reticent and tend to say “yes” to our clients’ requests. This is often to the surprise of our project managers who want to review scope and budget first! To mitigate these cross-cultural issues, we found that using a simple survey for our services significantly improved the quality of our communication. We have seen not only happier customers, but closer, even life-long friendships between our clients and our staff.

Since the beginning, it has been a deliberate decision to have our Cambodian staff engage closely with our clients. We believe in the power of building bridges between people over a shared purpose, which for us is to deliver digital experiences that revolutionize how people work and live together.

Embracing Cross-Cultural Differences

Software development generally is rife with misunderstandings over implementation or insufficient clarification of requirements. It succeeds and fails based on two key criteria: (1) the openness of the communication and (2) the depth of the trust and goodwill towards each other.

In the years we have worked with clients from Europe, we observe a few crucial subtleties in our staff's Asian culture that may affect that relationship.

  • Asians value harmony and self-control, which means it’s a praiseworthy trait if you can control your anger and frustration and limit any outward expression of disagreeable emotions.
  • Asians value humility and are quick to accept that they made mistakes; they often refuse praise by downplaying their contributions.
  • Asians prefer to communicate disagreement indirectly, using body language and physical context, more than using actual words. They prefer to allow the conflict to dissipate with time rather than address it specifically.

So what does this mean for our clients?

Often, it’s very easy to work with our staff. They are dedicated to solving our clients’ problems, amicable, quick to please, patient, and committed to deliveries, even if it involves late nights to keep their promises. However, the desire for harmony and tendency towards humility has resulted in the blind acceptance of requirements or the inability to challenge our customers’ requests when they violate the product’s business value.

The average grades received by our Scrum teams since the beginning of 2017.

In 2012, we adopted Agile and Scrum practices, which transformed the level of client engagement and unexpectedly addressed some of the cross-cultural differences we observed. By working in sprints, our Cambodian teams interacted with our clients on a weekly basis through sprint planning and sprint reviews in live video chats. We also trained our project managers to ask our clients three very simple questions at the end of every sprint.

  • On a scale of 1 to 6, how satisfied are they with the work produced by the team? How satisfied are they with the team?
  • Are they satisfied with the value they received from the team?
  • Why?

Using Feedback to improve Customer Satisfaction in Software Industry

The most important question is the last one – why? Our experience shows that it’s the dialogue that comes after the grade that is most important for building stronger relationships. By asking a simple rating question, the Project Managers created space for an open dialogue with our clients about what went well and what has been less satisfying. Our Project Managers tag team with the Account Manager who follows up with the client with a one-on-one conversation to catch any other feedback that may have been lost because they were not inclined to give negative feedback publicly or in English.

We know our clients are happy with our services and enjoy working with our teams. We have high satisfaction grades from them. On average, our teams receive a satisfaction grade of 5.4 out of 6 for their work. In our longest running project, Swisscom has been giving our team an average grade of 6, which represents the highest possible grade for excellence. More importantly, we have had many customers come visit us in Cambodia to meet the teams.

Adding a new Layer of Complexity?

Some may ask, why bother adding more complications into web development by throwing in geographic, cultural, and language differences too?

Our answer is simple. We think Fair Trade Software Development is worth it. Creating opportunities for partnerships between Cambodia and Europe adds purpose and meaning to our work that many people desires. Our clients receive excellent development services while our staff grow as a professional. It’s about promoting a sustainable and progressive way of creating innovative software!

Being married to a Swiss, I am a bit biased and I am a big proponent of cross-cultural partnerships if they are based on the same goodwill towards each other. The overall trend in the world is towards greater engagement with people who are different from us. Cheap airfares and the growing access to the internet have been bringing people closer for decades now. We see that our clients really enjoy working with our teams and together they are producing good quality work for the end users. We accept cultural differences as a normal part of daily life and see these encounters as opportunities to better understand one another and to continue to develop into better, more loving people in this world.

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