Where Can You Find the Best Couscous?

I’m writing from Malaga, Spain, where I’m keynoting another conference. (Thanks to all who attended the ClickZ conference last week. I had a great time speaking to and meeting so many of you.)

My trip has made me think about aspects of user experience and personalization. I’ll use my itinerary to talk about these issues.

Parlez-vous français?: Language, Culture, and Customs

One thing I noticed about Malaga (other than its beauty) is the rarity of English speakers. Of course, it is Spain, but a touristy area is usually used to dealing with English-speaking tourists. Most tourists I’ve met here, however, are from Europe, so French is more useful than English.

Communicating in French and trying to remember the Spanish I studied a year or so ago, I began to think about globalization (probably better called localization). It’s the process companies undertake to make their services understandable in other parts of the world. Globalization projects usually have to do with translating Web sites and collateral into other languages and processing other currencies. I think of globalization as a branch of personalization. After all, what’s closer to you than your language and your currency? Many sites can detect from what country you log in and serve a language-appropriate version. For those of you in international companies: Is language preference part of a user’s profile?

Language isn’t the only differentiator. Each culture has its own customs. Aside from your site’s language, what else should be changed to fit the customs and expectations of the nationalities you address? Does personalization mean something different to Americans than, for example, Japanese or Spanish people? Is personalization (“I am important. Talk to me as an individual”) an American concept? Are there other cultures in which an individual’s relationship with her community or family is more important than anything else? Might it be rude to address somebody by his name in a corporate email? Does calling me “Jack” versus “Mr. Aaronson” differ not only based on corporate culture (my answer when asked at the ClickZ conference) but also your cultural norms?

A Big Rock and Technically Difficult Features

During my free time here, I went to Gibraltar — where the famous rock is. I’m probably an Americano estúpido, but there’s a lot about Gibraltar and its rock I didn’t know. The picture I always had mind was the Prudential logo. Did you know the town of Gibraltar is not at the base of the rock (as I’d thought)? It’s actually on the rock. Hotels, houses, and restaurants are on the rock itself, not to mention museums and such. I’d always thought of it as just a rock. A really big one.

What’s the point in telling you how ill-informed I am? This relates to business. How important something is to your users is not always clear, because you have your own metrics upon which you judge importance. I thought Gibraltar was just a rock. I didn’t realize it was a town, with schools and its own currency. I also didn’t realize its political importance, or the fact the Spanish and English are battling over its future.

Something I’d never thought about and never realized was important is vitally important to a lot of people. Their existence and culture are at stake.

A very large technology company hired me to provide “business intelligence” as they designed a product. They presented every nut and bolt the product had. They were most proud of the features that were very complicated technically. One problem: They didn’t provide some of the most basic features a client would need. When I asked, they laughed and said, “We concentrated on the difficult features most of our competitors haven’t yet implemented.” Those “technically difficult” features didn’t have as much value to the industry they were targeting as “easy features” they didn’t bother to implement. They were shocked to hear this because their measure of importance was based on how technically challenging a feature was, not how useful. It was as if they’d be cheating by implementing features they deemed easy. Just as I viewed the Rock of Gibraltar, they measured importance from a very different perspective than those to whom it mattered. They were smart enough to realize this and asked me for that perspective. Having visited Gibraltar and spoken to people who live there, my understanding of the Rock’s importance is very different as well.

Couscous, Bartering, and a Fair Market

On my trip, I had a sudden craving for Moroccan couscous. Down the block from my hotel was a Moroccan restaurant, but why go to a Moroccan restaurant when you can go to Morocco? Four hours later, I found myself in Tangier. The cost of the trip was less than three hours of New York parking, so don’t think that this was an extravagant expenditure! My guide in Tangier took me to markets, the Kasbah, and many historical sites. I was impressed by the markets. The system of bartering and negotiating was unlike anything I’d experienced. There aren’t prices on anything. You negotiate until you find a price that meets both sides’ sense of “value.”

Of course, every culture has its own definition of “fair market.” I’m not telling you something you don’t already know, but how many companies have only one way of dealing with customers or of making sales? Do your business rules permit cultural differences? Less globally, do you understand the business of prospective clients before meeting with them? In my last article, I told the story of a vendor whose revenue was based on an ad revenue sharing plan while the site in question didn’t have outside advertising at all. Therefore, the vendor’s entire way of doing business wouldn’t work for us. It didn’t understand our way of doing business: how the site made money and how its company could work within those rules. This problem exists in our own culture, let alone adapting to standards and norms of others.

Your Assignment…

I’ve used this trip as a starting point to talk about globalization (or localization, if you prefer) and differences that affect online business. Personalization can help us cope with such differences. I know a lot of you who read this column are from outside the U.S. Many American readers do business abroad.

Here’s your homework: Tell me what differences you account for when doing business in other countries. In terms of CRM and personalization, what best practices can we automate on our sites? I’ll collect best suggestions and use them in a future column.

The hope of personalization is one day, companies will be like the familiar corner store in nostalgic memories. In truth, it can never be quite the same. The little corner store where the clerk knows what you want when you walk in serves a global clientele. The people walking in may speak different languages; they might have different expectations on what it means to buy, to sell, and to transact with you. The little corner store must act locally but think globally.

Until next time…


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