Dealing with media crises overseas has to be one of the biggest headaches in international customer service. As a food and beverage producer the liability for quality remains with you even if you work with a distributor, so salvaging your reputation is important when something goes wrong.
I’ve taken Korea as an example here because I was asked a specific question around this point recently, but the general principles apply to most countries, especially in Asia. There will be some Korean specifics that I cover though too.
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Prevention is better than a cure when it comes to customer service in different countries
Companies should take proactive measures to prevent quality issues from occurring in the first place. This can involve implementing rigorous quality control procedures, investing in employee training and education, and engaging with everyone in the supply chain to identify potential issues before they become crises.
Of course, prevention is better than any cure, so in an ideal situation this kind of event would never occur. However, realistically speaking, it doesn’t matter how good your quality is, at some point a consumer is likely to make some kind of claim about your products. This may or may not be justified, but whichever way, you need to have a procedure in place to take care of the next steps.
A European food and beverage company is attacked in the media in their export market South Korea for a supposed quality issue. The quality has been proven to be ok, but there is a shit storm online and consumers and retailers are boycotting the products. The media is having a field day with the mess.
What steps should the company take? How can they deal with media crises or quality issues? How can they repair their reputation?
My original thoughts on this topic were based on the assumption that the claim is unjustified (as often happens when a consumer thinks they can get a manufacturer to pay out) however, whichever the rights or wrongs of the quality, the crisis management process is very similar.
Things often play out something like this:
- the customer reports their complaint to the importer (or in social media & the importer picks up the Q)
- now the importer feels under pressure to give an immediate answer BUT has the obligation under his contract with his principal to refer all questions of this type before replying to consumers (if staff are not fully trained on this topic, sometimes things can go wrong at this point)
- the European producer’s immediate knee jerk reaction is that the product for sure left their factory in prime condition
- if the producer investigates it takes a long time which makes the Korean consumer feel uncomfortable and maybe suspicious that there’s some kind of cover up
- the case may be played down by the producer which can lead to an escalation if the consumer doesn’t feel they are being taken seriously
The basic steps of dealing with media crises overseas
Unfortunately, the situation described above is a common crisis that many companies face at some point in their international expansion journey. Some types of product (the more sensitive ones such as anything containing meat, dairy or designed for sensitive groups such as infants are particularly prone to this whereas it’s less common with say beer or snacks).
The following are some steps that the European food and beverage company can take to address the crisis and try to limit the damage to their reputation. These have to be carefully coordinated with the distributor concerned to make sure that they don’t give any off the cuff statements that may “fan the flames” of the problem. Remember that the level of trust you enjoy with consumers in a market as far away as Korea is likely to be lower than at home, so your international customer service process has to take account of that and the sensitivities of Korean consumers.
This is really key, especially in Asia!
You have to respond to the crisis as quickly as possible to prevent it from spreading further. This usually involves issuing a statement addressing the issue, where you acknowledge the concerns of consumers, and outline the steps that the company is taking to address the situation.
I’d say that “quickly” in the case of crises is a fairly flexible term and what you may think of as a fast reaction in Europe might not cut it in East or South East Asia.
Thoroughly Investigate the issue
Sounds obvious, but remember that Asian markets are especially sensitive when it comes to any hint of a food scandal, so you have to be seen to take the issue seriously (even if sometimes the claim may appear slightly ridiculous to you).
So, investigate the quality issue that has been raised and if necessary take immediate steps to rectify it. Working with independent third-party experts to verify the quality of the products and identify any potential issues is usually the best solution here, if you want to avoid the claim that you are brushing something under the table.
Proactive Communication is Vital in Overseas Customer Service
Whatever you do, keep the communication flowing.
The company should communicate proactively with its stakeholders, including authorities, customers, suppliers, and retailers, to provide regular updates on the steps that are being taken to address the issue. This may include press releases, social media updates, and other forms of communication.
Don’t leave it up to your distribution partner to do this: these kinds of crises are too sensitive to leave to anyone but a specialist. Your distributor can tell you their opinions here and give advice on reading the situation on the market, but you shouldn’t delegate responsibility for communication to them. It can be hard to manage this part of your relationship in the moment as they will probably be pushing hard for faster action in order to resolve everything and get back to normal.
Ideally you need to work with a professional agency here but for sure any statements or press releases should be translated by a professional. You can’t afford to lose the nuance of the original text here.
Actively Engage with the Media
Putting your head in the sand and claiming “no comment” is the fastest way unfortunately to getting yourself labelled “guilty” in today’s media landscape, so you need to engage actively with the relevant media to provide them with accurate information.
You might not be able to give them all the details, especially if the authorities are involved and considering any kind of public recall of your products, but you want to address any misrepresentations or misunderstandings. This can involve conducting media interviews, issuing press releases, and engaging with journalists on social media.
It’s also key to remember that not all media are “serious” in their approach to journalism, and sometimes a sensational report that “sells” is more important than accurately representing the truth. You’ll need support from your local partner and potentially a specialist to understand the nuances of whether you’re being confronted with sensationalism or realistic reporting.
As you can see, that is far easily to do in the local language if you have engaged a professional PR agency to support you to manage the case, but if they are not familiar with your company and product category, the question of briefing and communication becomes even more critical. Otherwise, how will they be able to competently answer any questions?
Address the consumer concerns – it’s called international customer service for a reason
I mentioned earlier that the level of trust for your brand is probably not as strong in an overseas country as in your domestic market, especially for many European brands. In Europe for the most part, we tend to assume that the products on the shelves are generally of decent quality and correspond to legal standards, which unfortunately isn’t the case in all countries of the world. That can make consumers generally more sceptical about product quality & that perception is also coloured by the geopolitical relations (& media reporting) between your country and the export market.
If consumers have concerns about the safety or quality of your product then you have to deal with them directly and speak of the issues. Remember a media crisis can also be triggered by something happening in another country (perhaps even with a completely different formulation of product to what you are selling in Korea). For example, something happens in Croatia and is communicated through the EU early warning system. Media in Asia pick up on it and the news spreads like wildfire… mostly in a rather exaggerated and inaccurate way, so calming the concerns of your consumers is important.
You don’t want to lie to them about something that may have happened but you also don’t want them to panic. Keep things objective and realistic without sensationalising anything (the media probably will have done that for you).
You may need to provide refunds or exchanges for affected products, but you certainly need to keep providing information on the steps that are being taken to address the issue, and addressing any other concerns that consumers may have.
A public product recall is probably the last action that you’re going to take if not strictly necessary as it’s a massive headache all round, especially in overseas markets.
Ongoing monitoring and evaluation
Make sure you monitor the situation closely to evaluate the effectiveness of your response and make adjustments as necessary. This may involve conducting surveys or other forms of research to gauge consumer sentiment and identify areas where the company can improve its response to similar crises in the future.
For sure you should have a crisis management handbook adapted for your international teams and make sure that your export teams and your distribution partners are trained properly on what to do in the event of something happening.
Customer Service in International Business is a tricky act to get right – what do you need in South Korea?
In South Korea, customer service is highly valued and can play a critical role in building customer loyalty and trust, especially in crisis situations. To provide effective customer service in South Korea, you should consider the following best practices:
Multi- or even Omnichannel Support
South Korean consumers are very tech savvy and expect to be able to access customer support through multiple channels, including phone, email, social media, and chat. You also need to be responsive and accessible to customers.
Social media platforms like KakaoTalk, Naver, and Daum are extremely popular, and so consider using these platforms to communicate with your consumers. However, consumers also expect to be able to speak with a real person if needed, especially for more complex or urgent issues. Therefore, you should be prepared to offer both automated and live support channels, as well as being responsive and accessible across all of them.
A Fast Response
A fast response in Europe isn’t the same as a fast response in Asia, & it doesn’t matter whether you think that this is justifiable or not, if you want to do business in the market you have to play by their rules. South Korean consumers expect speedy and efficient service, so you need to be prepared to respond to customer inquiries and complaints quickly. That might mean deploying chatbots or other automated support tools to provide instant responses, or providing round-the-clock support to ensure that customers can access assistance at any time.
Demonstrate cultural sensitivity
South Korea has a unique cultural context, so it’s important to be sensitive to local customs and practices when providing customer service. eg. using honorific language when addressing consumers (your distributor should be making inputs here) or not making assumptions based on your home cultural norms.
The last thing you want is for the customer to escalate their complaint because they feel you’re not taking them seriously enough, so be proactive in your communication whichever channel you have chosen to use.
Main points to consider with international customer service in Korea or generally when dealing with media crises overseas
- Take the complaint very seriously and get a statement out to the consumer saying you understand their concern and will investigate immediately
- Expedite an independent lab test (if relevant) – don’t just test in-house and expect that to convince a consumer, or try to fob them off with “we test all products before they leave our warehouse” – that won’t wash
- Coordinate really closely with the importer to ensure they don’t make any statements that don’t reflect the full situation
- If media are involved, get a specialist agency involved in Korea to handle the contact with the press and to ensure that any statements are professionally translated
- Speed is even more essential than in Europe
- Be sure to coordinate any potential compensation with the importer. There’s a fine line between “we’re sorry you were disappointed with our product” and “we’re trying to buy your silence”… You don’t want a consumer going to the press and stating that you tried to buy them off.
- Make sure that you (or the manufacturer if you are selling a contract production range) have procedures in place together with the importer to clarify exactly who is informed when and what to do in various levels of crisis
- A damaged package or colour variation in the printing is easily explained & not really a crisis unless the consumer makes it one by creating a media shit storm
- Topics such as investigations by the authorities or product recalls are genuine crises – for sure this process should be regulated internally with close coordination with the local partner. In this kind of event, you also have to educate yourself fast on the legal situation in the market (I’m assuming you know your legal obligations in your domestic market).
- Be prepared to apologise – humility will help restore your reputation
- Don’t take chances of completely ruining your reputation (this is why you need to act fast and take these types of complaints seriously)
- Take the consumer’s perception seriously even if it’s not proven true
- Accept that there are also cases where consumers complain about impossible things (I once had a case where a consumer complained (not in Korea) that they found a 10cm screw in a 6cm glass jar of baby food – simply not possible)
Recognising what kind of crisis you have on your hands is a key to recognising what steps you need to take immediately. After all, “the package I ordered online arrived damaged” is a pretty minor event whilst upsetting for the consumer whereas “10 people are in hospital and 1 died after eating X from producer Y” is a completely different level. Your international customer service playbook and crisis management handbook should support your teams to react properly whatever the circumstances. In that way you can ensure that even if something should go wrong then you are able to minimise the risks to the consumers as well as your company reputation.
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