Dealing with your Middle-Eastern clients and having the right customer representatives

Dealing with a Middle-Eastern client can be intimidating to many western companies. As the world goes into war, more and more Middle-Easterners are getting displaced. This means that in the next few years you will be surprised that you are dealing with Middle-Eastern clients, and lots of them. These clients could come as visitors, business visitors, refugees, immigrants, or just sponsored by their governments to seek services in your country. You might even end up starting a business in their countries. Dealing with Middle-Eastern clients can be a challenge for many companies as they are new clients from a part of the world that the media is quite nice to.

In this article we'll be discussing the Middle-East is and its culture, the language, the stereotypes, and hiring the right employees or customer service representative to deal with the clients.

What do we mean by “The Middle-East”?

Before you go into the whole Middle-Eastern client you - the reader - need to understand where the term "Middle-East" comes from. If you say “they are from the Middle-East” then you need to understand what the Middle-East is and whether the place even exist.

People discuss and mention the Middle-East as if it were a continent. The term Middle-East was coined by the British in the 1850s. You can read more about it here and in this book here.

Why is this important?

The reason you need to read about this is because this little piece of information will help you understand the customer you are dealing with. When you use one term to collectively group all people into one group, then you will end up seeing the whole area as one. I will use the term “Middle-East” in this article as it is widely used these days.

When people use the term “Middle-East” most people imagine Muslims, white turbans, deserts, burqa, and Arabs. Of course that is very much incorrect. The area referred to as the Middle-East has Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, and Azeri’s. Indigenous minorities of the Middle East include Jews, Assyrians and other Arameans, Baloch, Berbers, Copts, Druze, Lurs, Mandaeans, Samaritans, Shabaks, Tats, and Zazas (source: Wikipedia: Middle-East)

Understanding the fact that there are numerous cultures, languages, religions, and even dialects of the same language will help you better understand your customers. Putting them all in the same group and calling them “Arabs” or “Muslim” will do nothing but infuriate your customers and push them to shop somewhere else. And no, they do not all live in deserts. Some of the countries in that geographical location do not even have deserts. A country in the Middle-East without a desert is Lebanon.

Do not stereotype them:

I work for a company that deals with hundreds of Middle-Eastern students every month. I was hired because the company was having difficulties dealing with their clients. I noticed many employees make the same mistake over-and-over again. They stereotype Middle-Eastern clients into one group, and that group is “Misogynistic ignorant Muslims”. For any company to do that is just asking for clients to walk out the door.

Middle-Easterners might come from many different cultures, languages, and religions, but they still have some aspects of their cultures that are a bit similar. Cultures in the Middle-East are Collectivists. You can read more about it here

Having clients that come from a collectivist culture means that they come from a tight-knit community; so if you anger one client from that group you can easily see other clients leaving too as a show of solidarity for a person of their cultural background. 

Understand that culture and religion are two different things:

If you are going to hire a customer rep to deal with Middle-Easterners, and that rep is not born in the Middle-East, then the rep really needs to understand that there are huge differences between culture and religion. I am not solely discussing Islam here, as that is what most people think about when mentioning the Middle-East. From my experience of being born in the Middle-East and living there for over 26 years, culture is way more powerful than religion. What a customer rep might interpret as a religious act can be very much a cultural one misconstrued as religious.

How to find the right customer representative:

Finding the right person to do the job requires a bit of patience. The person you choose should have some background knowledge about the Middle-East. They need to understand the languages and cultures. I speak Arabic with my clients. Most employees hear me and think I am using the same dialect as my clients. What many employees do not know is that Arabic comes in many different dialects and accents.

Here is a list of Arabic dialects:

Spoken Arabic can be broadly categorized into the following, main dialect groups:

  • North African Arabic (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya),
  • Hassaniya Arabic (Mauritania),
  • Egyptian Arabic,
  • Levantine Arabic (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine),
  • Iraqi Arabic,
  • Gulf Arabic (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Oman).
  • Hejazi Arabic (Western Saudi Arabia)
  • Najdi Arabic (Central Saudi Arabia).
  • Yemeni Arabic (Yemen & southwestern Saudi Arabia). (Source: My Easy Arabic)

My Arabic dialect is from the Gulf area as I was born in Kuwait City/ Kuwait. Which itself has many different dialects. Many of the ethnic groups in Kuwait come from different parts of the Middle-East.

Being born in Kuwait gave me the opportunity to learn many different dialects as Kuwait is a center for many foreign workers. The number of foreign workers in Kuwait is close to 3.7 million people, the locals are close to 1.5 Million (source: Wikipedia Demographics of Kuwait)

Things to remember when meeting a client from the Middle-East:

Do not discuss religion and politics:

Politics and religion are huge topics in the Middle-East. Asking a client about them will just send you down the rabbit hole. Middle-Easterners love discussing religion and politics. It is of my experience to just steer clear, especially if your customer service rep is born in that part of the world. Coming from a different, and sometimes apposing cultures and religions, will be bad for business. As soon your customer rep makes a mistake, the client will blame it on the customer rep’s ethnic or religious background.

Do not assume anything:

When dealing with Middle-Easterners learn to assume nothing. Never, ever, do it. It will not end well. I remember my family owned a small bridal store in a city close to Vancouver. One day we had two lovely ladies come into our store. The two ladies spoke fluent Levant dialect of Arabic. My mother wanted to ask where the ladies came from. I asked her not to assume and just politely ask them. Of course my mother did not listen to me and asked them if they were from Turkey. The two ladies looked back in anger and replied quite angrily that they were Armenians. If you do not the history of Armenia and Turkey, I would suggest you do some reading. 

Futhur reading

If you would like to read more on the topic, I would suggest this little article I found at Harvard Business. The article discusses how to understand the Arab consumer. Read it here