Relying on psychology to avoid cultural clash in human interactions   

by | Jul 25, 2023 | Airlines, Airports, Digital Transformation, Travel Tech

Relying on psychology to avoid cultural clash in human interactions


It isn’t uncommon to experience glitches or interruptions when you travel. Among all the touchpoints, which one is your go to one when things are going wrong?

When you are stuck i.e. you can’t move forward with your airline check-in at the airport or unable to avail a key hotel amenity like the Wi-Fi Internet access despite repeated attempts, it is likely that a human interaction is what you are looking for. You might initiate the dialogue via chat, social media, call etc. but nothing like a face-to-face frontline employee helping you out when you are in the middle of a negative experience as the brand is failing to deliver.

But what if that face-to-face interaction fails miserably?

In an era when travel supplies have considerable data about guests/ passengers, and also when algorithms can “speak the language” by counting on what it described as artificial emotional intelligence, why can’t a resolution be worked out that tilts the balance in favour of a brand?

One of the key elements is the cultural clash, which travel companies can’t ignore. In fact, in that moment when the product or service is failing and that’s precisely the reason why an interaction is taking place, the right body language, the choice of words, tone etc. by a brand representative can make or break it for the guest.

Let us go through a couple of real, indifferent experiences for a traveller from Asia interacting with brands like Marriott and JetBlue in the U. S. and evaluate them via the lens of psychology.


What to do when travel tech or key service doesn’t work

The JetBlue interaction:

Travel tech is often the biggest nemesis for airlines, something which passengers don’t understand and rightly so considering some of the smooth routine stuff they come across with other product categories. Also, when a delay happens along with the tech issue that a customer has already faced, it is a dreadful mix. Let me explain. In the case of JetBlue, there was an issue related to paying for a check-in bag after completing the web check-in. That is the decision to pay for a check-in bag online in a new session after you checked in a previous session. Attempts to pay via a credit card, including one issued in the U. S., didn’t work. And then one has to stand in the queue to check on the issue and also pay for the same (then a non-US credit card works!). The traveller pays more offline as compared to paying online. The issue was on both the legs of the New York-Orlando itinerary. And on the return journey, there was a delay of around 4-5 hours, too. More than anything else, it is the interaction with the check-in agent that tends to disappoint the most. Maybe by choice (not looking at the passenger, the tone etc.) or not understanding the cultural background of the traveller, in this case an Asian, results in not meeting the expectations of the traveller. The traveller interacts with the brand several times – the loyalty app, the self-service kiosk etc. but when the last resort is the agent and that conversation is insipid for the traveller, the brand’s perception takes a dip.

The Marriott interaction:

The brand (the property – Residence Inn Times Square NY) here suffered the most and on its own refunded the money for two nights. Issues – the AC not working in one room and the Wi-Fi connection not working for almost four days after being shifted to another room. The chat service on the Marriott Bonvoy app was used initially to complain about the Internet, but proved futile. The front desk couldn’t sort out the issue for days despite having the reference number of the Internet Support provided by the customer himself (spending more than an hour on call across multiple sessions). The Internet worked only sporadically, at times at a speed of less than 1Mbps, far from the way it should work. Eventually the supervisor took over but the face-to-face interaction with the staff left a lot to be desired. Was it a new issue or did it already exist? Why shift the guest to this room? No answer to these questions when asked. Also, the post stay follow-up email was a general one (the standard questionnaire), suffice to say the data about the customer, their in-destination stay and the systems that trigger a communication are in complete disarray. Apologies at this stage neither help the property nor the traveller.

In such cases, the staff that interacts with a troubled traveller must be prepared to address the issue not only with a product-related offering, but also taking charge of the core or essence of a conversation – listening and responding appropriately.


Avoiding cultural clash via application of psychology principles

Tech and apps can’t resolve issues all the time.

It is time to capitalise on the relevant branch of AI, be it for artificial neural networks in deep learning or unsupervised machine learning, to come up with that clue or the right sentence to appease a ruffled traveller.

Imagine, when a retail product on the shelf has no tag and the agent goes away or calls someone else for details, the shopper waits (happened at TJ Maxx). The conversation keeps going, the trained cashier knows how to go about it and the hiccup doesn’t matter. Similarly, why can’t the hotel front desk staff or airline check-in agent make the most of those few minutes. The question is how then. Sometimes a smile works. But if doesn’t something else needs to be done.

In psychology it is pointed out that our perception and memories constitute our emotions. That’s the intrinsic aspect of a human that has to be understood. Secondly and more specifically the cultural clash in interactions lies in the understanding of the “concept of self” – the western view is stated to draw sharp dichotomies between self and other (described as being individualistic), whereas people from Asia are more collectivistic, that is they stay in a state of harmonious co-existence for a longer duration. So in a real scenario, the traveller from Asia possibly can be engaged for a longer duration as opposed to seemingly an abrupt ending by the service staff seemingly hailing from the US.


Some points to ponder:

  • Time to go beyond automation for basic queries. Is there an algorithm that comprehends cultural nuances especially how a guest responds/ expects to be treated when having a negative experience?
  • What sort of customer data platform or a related system is required that can come up with a recommendation based on understanding of complex query?
  • How to count on the first party data and blend it with a culture-sensitive algorithm, especially when the crisis isn’t over?
  • How the staff can be trained better to deal with such situations?
  • Time to revisit the marketing technology stack (stop sending routine emails once it is known a previous issue or interaction wasn’t great and not sorted yet). What should be avoided to ensure that the hotel or airline doesn’t come across as an entity that isn’t aware of the situation after the stay or the flight? For instance, a generalised e-mail questionnaire.

A huge scope for improvement in such scenarios. Otherwise travel suppliers would continue to lose on loyalty and also forced to refund the money in order to salvage the situation.


Article by Ritesh Gupta