Managing International Customer Support

Executive Summary

Companies often frame their customer support problems as being for local customers with local credit cards and local shipping addresses. In an international world, mobile customers may under some circumstance easily get frustrated by such assumptions. Companies need to upgrade their software to permit self-service interactions that allow customers to have international addresses, international credit cards and international shipping addressed, with fraud detection to catch identity theft. The upside from a more international perspective is lower support costs, better customer satisfaction and the potential of more international sales. Personas, or customer models with expectations, goals and levels of understanding need to be considered more broadly in support designs.


Difficult customer often work on both sides of a border. For example, many work and live on both sides of the US/Canadian border. The number of Mexican/US pairing is also high.

In crossing borders, there is a common problem of suppliers, whether they be luggage vendors, banks, credit card companies or telecom vendors. In short, they are often not prepared for an international client. This lack of preparedness is no respecter of size or technology sophistication, even large and successful companies such as Google have these problems.

Take for example, the simple problem of changing the addresses of my credit cards from a US address to a Canadian address. The first problem is that many US banks don’t actually recognize non-US addresses. How do you change your address when you have no US state? In most cases, you have to make a phone call and then get transferred to some specialty department that can wave its magic want and update your address. Total interaction time may go from 5 minutes to 30 minutes with phone call. In some cases, the institution is actually totally incapable of accepting a Canadian address. For these banks, you need to use a US address, perhaps that of a friend. It’s not terribly convenient when your card gets replaced.

The next problem is with companies that pretty much define their business as being American but offer services that allow you to use their service in other countries. Take for example, Google Fi for a phone service. The difficulties here are similar to those of the banks. Google Pay, the mechanism for paying my Google Fi account allows me to have two or more payment profiles. But the default address can be problematic. It can take me three or four phone calls to get my various addresses set up so that a user can place the order and receive the phone. Google found it sufficiently embarrassing that they gave a $30 CDN credit for the experience.

And when trying to use the store credit, it turned out to be unusable, setting off another round of phone calls and email interactions. During this round of problem solving, numerous support staff showed me that they did not understand the problem. Worse, their computer screens could not show my interactions with the software and I was forced to send snapshots of the failing screens.


So, what are the issues?

The first issue is that American companies need to actually consider having foreign customers. This means that they must develop address interfaces that address multiple markets.

Second, payment methods for multinational companies need to support credit cards from multiple countries.

Third, where you are living, located or working may have no relationships to the suppliers you use (e.g. credit cards, telecom vendors, etc.)

Fourth, low probability events in a customer’s journey should be able to handle multiple countries for accounts, payment and delivery. Now while fraudulent attempts to use a credit card from country A and shipments to country B are definite possibilities, resolving such issues is an addressable issue.

Fifth, often customer support problems show up when the customer is attempting to return, replace or repair a product.  Briggs & Riley, an excellent bag maker is an example. Its system, while generally thought out well for the international customer does not handle non-US addresses for repair returns. You have to search through international vendors to find one with the capabilities you need.


Most of us who are computer literate take for granted that using the Internet is the fastest way of doing something. Most companies have terrible customer phone service lines. Long wait times combined with walking through a script with a customer service customer are extremely frustrating. But forcing a customer to use the Internet, fail in his/her goal, then call, wait, call back or take multiple phone calls in a customer service problem has a cost for the customer. The experience of “being serviced” is a downer. In contrast, using the Internet to simplify customer interactions and reduce wait times is a positive for most customers. Having the backup of manual intervention is often appropriate and forgotten about by large high tech firms.

Managers who fall into the trend of the month club may raise the issue of artificial intelligence or the use of chatbots to service customer requests. But chatbots are normally framed within quite limited customer interactions and don’t generally address the complexity of international customers.

International Fraud Detection

Clearly detecting fraud with credit card use is an important issue. However, many companies do this detection badly. For example, Citibank seems unable to connect its fraud detection with temporary residence in another country. It frequently turns down purchases because of “travelling internationally”. A more sensitive fraud detection might include a current location in its algorithm.

The Upside

Some may say that international customers are a small segment of the market, so who cares? However, all the example cited above are long term relationships between me and the supplier. So, evaluating my customer profitability requires a multi-year evaluation. Why lose a customer just because they change sides of a border?

Roughly 263,000 Americans immigrated to Canada from 2001 to 2011. More recent data (2016, 2017) shows roughly 2500 landed immigrant applications in recent years.  In Canada, 86,000 new residents were added from the US between2006 and 2015 ( )

By way of contrast, 738,000 Canadians live in the US as of 2016. ( )

Hispanic immigrants to the US is a more difficult universe to analyze. Segmenting their needs is important given the high percentage of Spanish speaking immigrants.

Generally, companies often tend to underinvest in international markets and mobile customers. If customer support functionality supports international customers, then the upside for a company can be large, particularly if word of mouth marketing is included in the calculation.

And of course, customer support calls after a self-service failure does cost. Avoiding multiple support calls can reduce cost for companies in addition. While upgrading support software has costs as well, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which international customers decrease in number over time so early investment in supporting international customers is likely to pay off down the road.


Copyright Alistair Davidson,

Phone: 650 868 5588

All rights reserved.