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Gate B22 in the Frankfurt Airport Offers a Lesson in Cultural Differences

United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Photograph by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images

United Nations Headquarters in New York.

On my way to Mumbai recently, I had the opportunity to witness the cultural border crossing between Germany and India—also known as Gate B22 at Frankfurt Airport.

There are two distinct cultures at Gate B22—a German culture that expects orderliness, with passengers boarding as their sections are called, and an Indian culture, in which virtually everyone rushes the gate as soon as those in wheelchairs—and others needing extra time and assistance—are summoned to preboard.

In Germany, when you call for preboarding for wheelchairs, only those in wheelchairs go forward. In India, apparently, the rules are different—everyone pushes forward. Many of those claiming they are wheelchair passengers are clearly ambulatory and are carrying heavy bags that need to be checked because they would never fit in an overhead bin.

The people running the B22 gate operation seemed totally unaware of this fact. The gate agents acted like they’d never seen it before, frustrated that obviously able-bodied passengers with heavy bags were claiming privileges airlines reserve for the elderly and disabled.

As I found out, however, any surprise the gate agents feigned was mostly performance art—for the sake of appearances—since the same routine apparently happens daily, probably multiple times a day. The process repeats without change: The Germans do what they do; the Indians do what they do; and the Americans watch in a combination of frustration and amusement.

In a world so quickly globalizing, managing cultural differences is a high priority, especially when you’re a global airline.

It’s not just airlines that interact daily with customers from various cultural traditions. So do car companies, manufacturers of home appliances and personal care products, purveyors of food and drink, financial institutions, law firms, advertising agencies, and myriad others.

The lessons?

First, companies can’t adapt their products and services to the cultural differences among customers until they fully understand those differences. The gate agents understand them; they live them every day. Management needs to understand them as well.

Second, management needs to provide employees with the tools and flexibility to adjust to such realities. Certain customers want to be served in certain ways. One size fits all doesn’t work. Live with it. Go with it. Grow with it.

Finally, after you’ve become comfortable with and have adapted to the new reality, use the “cultural border” advantage you create to capture customers who value premium service.

Globalization creates cultural borders. Those who manage them well can reap tremendous rewards.

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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