Global Sales: How to Understand Cultures

The decision to expand from the domestic market to an international presence is an exciting one, full of vast income potential and newness. But it’s one that needs to be prepared for carefully – ill-conceived and poorly executed foreign rollouts can devastate a business, leading to massive cash hemorrhages. In fact, according to some researchers, fewer than 25% of US businesses succeed in their global ambitions. Here at Janek, we’ve had success training salespeople around the globe, and we are excited to give you advice on how to make your jet-setting dreams a reality. Today, we’ll be looking at four best practices to understand the cultures of countries you hope to operate in.

Understand the culture on a national level and perhaps within regions.
One of the biggest mistakes companies hoping to go abroad make is not recognizing cultural differences. This isn’t just in terms of negotiations – it’s in every aspect of the business – from products to messaging to pricing to marketing strategy. What works in the US doesn’t always transplant to other countries – in fact, you should regard every country as a separate, unique entity.

This might seem obvious, but quite a few business people tend to think of differences – if at all – in sweeping geographic terms like European, Asian, African, etc. This is a colossal blunder that will doom the business from the start. Italy’s culture and expectations are different from France’s. China operates much differently from Japan. Morocco has wholly different circumstances from South Africa.

If the target country is large enough, regional factors may come into play, just as they do in the US. For example, you often won’t conduct business in quite the same way in California that you do the Deep South.

Consult local sources to learn more about the norms and etiquette of society.
Researching to learn more about the country you want to do business in is good. But there’s a danger in consulting American or English sources only – even those who are considered experts. That potential problem area is that even the most well-versed American will still be presenting say, Mongolian culture, through the lens of an outsider’s view.

An example of this came some years ago when I was talking with some Chinese friends of mine. Somehow, Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha – about a Japanese geisha – and Chinese-American author Amy Tan came up. My friends told me that while Golden was a far superior writer, they could definitely tell the novel was written by a Westerner, whereas Tan – despite being less skilled an author – was authentic to the experience of growing up in a Chinese family. The lesson from that has always stuck with me.

So when you’re wanting to learn about a culture, speak with local sources and read local media. Your best bet will be to talk to the contacts you have in the country and ask them for information and help in understanding the society and how to operate in its business environment.

Learn as much of the language as you can.
Yes, English has replaced French as the international language – particularly in business. But keep in mind you’re going to be working with and possibly living in this new country. Therefore, it behooves you to start learning the language if you haven’t already. A couple reasons why you should do this:

  • You can avoid a PR disaster that decimates sales. One of the biggest problem spots: translations that play poorly in the destination country. A couple of examples:1) Ford didn’t change the name of the Pinto when launching the car in Brazil, and in Brazilian Portuguese, Pinto is slang for tiny male genitals 2) Mercedes-Benz first entered the Chinese market as Bensi, which translates into “Rush to Die”. Not knowing the language dramatically increases your chances of this kind of mistake.
  • It’s a great relationship builder. Few people will expect you to be fluent in another language – indeed, 75% of Americans only speak English. But if you make the effort to at least get to survival-level proficiency, that shows your dedication and seriousness about doing business in a new country, and consequently improves your relationships.

Engage with the local community and culture.
It can be tempting to just stick with your local expat community – other Americans, for example. It’s comfortable and familiar in a new environment. But you should instead do the opposite – talk to locals, try the cuisine, visit the hotspots, etc. Doing so will help your language skills and, perhaps most importantly, provide you the opportunity to do some first-hand market research into gaining a better understanding of your potential customers and how they differ from your home country.

International commerce and sales is a wonderful, important milestone in the life of a business. But proceed with caution and understand the fundamentals of working with another country and culture – sometimes radically different from your own. Then you’ll be able to avoid egregious errors and have the best chance for success in your adventures abroad.