CX Russian-style: The Challenge of Trust-building in a Skeptical Culture

By Gabe Smith CCXP posted 02-19-2020 09:38 AM


Russia may not be the first country you think of when you consider customer-centric business cultures, but if Olga Guseva, CCXP, has her way, that could change—eventually. A barrier as large as Russia itself is the country’s culture of deep citizen mistrust in, well, everything—banks, telecoms, government, foreign entities, and—unfortunately—companies, even those genuinely interested in improving customer experience.

“Our history has taught us Russians to be very conservative and actually to be afraid of a lot of things because we have been cheated a lot of times,” explains Olga, “so we don't really trust. We always think, ‘Ah, ha! They're making [a product] for money, so they're smiling at me, … and we think, ‘I should check the bill next time, because maybe they have increased it.’”

She thinks developing a positive CX is likely tougher for Russian companies and international companies working in Russia because “you don’t have this bank of trust you can get for granted” in Europe or elsewhere. As a result, firms should expect to start at “subzero,” then work hard to build customer faith even to “neutral.” Once neutral, companies can finally start building a measurable level of trust; the long timeline “makes it really hard” for corporations to stick around, Olga admits.

Another cultural challenge in Russia are the low—extremely low--expectations around product and service quality. “Again, we have been taught by our history to be very careful about the quality of a product, so we always need to double and triple check to see if it's okay—just okay,” she laughs. “We don't expect its quality to be really high! We expect a product to have some flaws, so the first thing [Russian customers] do is start checking for flaws” such as broken or missing pieces.

Bridging the Barrier

Once a company has proven itself, though, an avidly enthusiastic customer base germinates. According to Olga, “Companies who manage to gain the trust of Russian customers have a huge portion of loyalty, because when a customer says, ‘Okay, I trust you,’ that means a lot--probably more than in another country.”

Based in St. Petersburg but with a resume replete with job titles and educational achievements from international conglomerates such as British Airways and State University of New York at Binghamton, Olga spent most of her life in marketing. Indeed, she used her Russian marketing PhD to help her lead brand loyalty programs in 18 European countries.

Olga credits such positive career experiences with growing her passion for CX and her understanding of its importance to business success and long-term sustainability. She realized that marketing alone wasn’t “the whole story,” and while great for acquiring new customers, the widespread assumption that once customers “come to your door and call you by name, marketing has done its job” is false.______________small.jpg

She calls current customers a “treasure trove” but says that “nobody really cares about them, because you are not an exciting new customer. They came in your house, and you went upstairs and went to bed, and they're just downstairs.”

The outcome of such neglect—lost, jaded customers--is not unique to Russia. Olga sees CX frustration in Europe and the United States, too, and this reality makes no business sense to her when costs to acquire new customers are increasingly high.  

By the time she founded her own consulting company, Olga had realized that CX in Russia is in “a very, very rudimentary stage, and [it is] on the verge of a big explosion, because there is a huge need. The customer experience is frequently quite poor, and companies don't understand the need to do something about it, don't always know how to do it, and instead do a lot of ad hoc things without … really understanding if they bring results or not.”

She believes that Russian companies need a deeper understanding of the elements and practices of a customer-centric culture, CX management and measurement systems, and a commitment to boost the pace of internal cultural change.

To help accelerate progress, her company has partnered with an Australian firm that developed a Market Responsiveness Index (MRITM) to measure levels of corporate customer-centricity. She now promotes the technology, translated into Russian, through her consulting as one of the few tools that systematically assesses a company’s customer-centricity, which enables them to build an improvement strategy.

Despite the early stage of CX in Russia’s business community, Olga credits tough global competition as keeping the pressure on companies to change, especially in the industries of telecommunications, banks, and travel. “If you don't really care about your customers, and if you don't do CX in a systematic way, you just go out of business,” she says.

Making a Latte of Difference

To counter Russia’s embedded mistrust requires companies to be patient, persistent, and to both communicate and execute continually on customer-centric corporate values. She points to a Russia-based sister company of Starbucks, Bushe, as an excellent example of how training employees in CX can rapidly fuel growth.

The company’s rich CX values permeate all its practices, which transfer through the behavior of employees to customers, says Olga, now managing partner at Integria Consult. She tells of a time she left her computer mouse at a nearby Bushe coffee shop for an entire day and upon inquiring if it had been found, an employee responded, “Don't worry, of course we've taken care of it. It's been safe and waiting for you.”

“It was so unexpected,” she said, adding her admiration that despite the company’s expansion, it has managed to maintain a high level of customer trust by listening to those its serves, teaching employees to “be human,” and emphasizing corporate values over coffee-making—although the latter is important, too.

The company is a good example of why—although working to grow CX in a very conservative corporate environment can be frustratingly slow—it’s still vital to set up some simple CX tests, probe for customer feedback, and ask other people how they manage CX, Olga advises. “Be persistent, and your learning curve will tell you what's the next best move” for you and your organization.