Customer service: transcending the language barrier

When I was in Mongolia (can’t believe I just wrote that and it’s true), I was fortunate to be travelling with guides whose genuine care and warmth made me fall in love with a whole country. Well, it was partly them and partly these delicious little meat pastie/dumpling hybrids called Khuushuur. Anyhow, my guides were both so effortlessly great at their job, it inspired this article about how good customer service transcends the language barrier.

One guide’s English was particularly good (and I assume his Mongolian was impeccable), but it wasn’t what he said that made his customer service great, it was what he did and how he did it. In fact, I was so wholly spoiled by his level of service that my poor guide in the country north of Mongolia had some big shoes to fill. Unfortunately he failed, but fortunately this did not make me dislike his entire country.

Here are the three main things that my Mongolian guides did really well, that my Russian guide did not.

Listening properly

Listening is the difference between having a conversation and two people just talking at each other. It requires you to put aside all agendas and genuinely focus on the other person.

On numerous occasions my Mongolian guide brought up topics I had previously shown an interest in, and pointed out things that I had (perhaps days before) mentioned. He asked questions and we exchanged ideas about topics, and then he effortlessly took what he had heard me talk about and used the information to enhance my experience. And it absolutely did. By genuinely listening, I felt special and cared for, which is a great customer experience.

Language is a barrier to the ability to understand, but it should not be a barrier to genuine listening. With the other guide, I was regularly told “I understand”, but on very few occasions did I ever feel understood. Whenever I spoke or asked a question my utterance was treated like a problem to be solved, instead of being one half of a conversation. “Yes, I understand” validated my words, but did not constitute a response to my meaning. So every attempted conversation I had with him ended in my disappointment at being rushed to the conclusion of his understanding. He proved over and over that he was not listening properly. And so I finally stopped talking.

It is not enough to use the language of listening (nodding, smiling, saying “I understand”). Proper listening constitutes a genuine desire to validate the conversation and contribute to the communication exchange and the overall communication experience, even after the talking has stopped.

Conscious acknowledgement

When you are a tourist, you have ‘tourist’ written all over you: your odd coloured beanie, the weird camera bulge in your jacket, an excessively zippered backpack, and your ugly but practical shoes. There is no hiding it. There is no blending in.

A good tour guide makes you feel unselfconscious about this. They facilitate awkward camera shots, they oversupply you with water and then ask you frequently if you need a bathroom stop, and they politely let others know that you will create a temporary annoyance of loud foreign accents in restaurants. In other words, they acknowledge your status as a tourist and make sure all your touristy behaviours are enabled.

Another Mongolian guide was particularly good at this. She knew when we wanted to stop for photos, even saw opportunities for us that we didn’t. She would proactively take my camera and snap pictures with me in it (a rarity when you travel solo) and knew when to pose and when to get out of shot. This thoughtfulness and mindfulness was a relieving cushion against that feeling of being a gawking intruder that I usually have as a tourist. It took the pressure off.

In Russia, where I have far fewer photos, I felt the weight of my camera as a silly obligation and my guide only took a shot of me when I asked him to. I had to ask many times to stop and photograph beautiful scenery and views, which made me wonder if we occupied the same space at all. It was like he had no awareness of why I was there and what would interest me. I would have thought this was tour-guide 101: you are a guide of tourists and they will want to do tourist things like take photos.

In any customer service situation, the relationship between supplier and customer is partly defined by the context. A shop situation is different to a car yard situation and a tourist one. But there are recurring conventions attached to these contexts and to not have any awareness of them will always result in poor customer service.

The human touch

Even though there are expected conventions of behaviour and tacitly agreed norms of the guide-tourist relationship, we must not forget that we are actually human. Guides are not encyclopaedic analogues who should anticipate my every whim and answer all of my questions, and I am not a walking checklist of activities to be completed and then put to bed.

But to see a human instead of an agenda, you need to behave like one. One Mongolian guide took unabashed joy in singing and whistling as we drove, initiated karaoke and invited me to play in a spontaneous camp volleyball game. The other spoke of her passion for the outdoors, her time in the UK and her love of pokey little country homes and (oddly) Manchester. Even our tough driver from the Gobi admitted he was a fan of Korean soap opera and that’s why his excused himself from dinner early.

Talking about real things made my experience more real and authentic. I felt more at ease and happier. In Russia, all I learned was that my guide was a biologist and a teacher, which explained why I felt like a ten year old on a field trip at times. Some of the non-English speaking people I encountered made me feel more at home because we shared a laugh at our inability to communicate via words, and this made for a much more humanised encounter.


Travel, I concede, is a particular customer service situation. Guides are with you longer than they would be in most other situations and there are more complicated logistics. But the essential experience (supplier to customer) rests on the same principles as even the simplest retail encounter.

Listening establishes rapport, acknowledgement personalises the experience and being a real person makes it enjoyable. Customer service without these characteristics is isolating, cold and boring (unless you have some good Russian vodka).

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