International sales: Getting to know your customer through the lens of culture

By Ray Cavanagh

Global Accounts Senior Program Manager, Kronos

Jesse Rowell

Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development, Aperian Global

Some research has shown that the majority of buyers prefer to interact with suppliers through virtual means – primarily email and some type of voice call. And though the handshake is not dead (roughly a quarter of respondents included it among their preferences), buyers overwhelmingly prefer being contacted by email and phone. These results demonstrate the importance of making sure what is “said” in writing or voicemail is well thought out and articulated clearly.

Being thoughtful and clear in every virtual setting can be a challenge even in our most comfortable work settings. But imagine the added complexity when working with people from other cultures and countries.

In this day and age, cultural diversity is all around us. Our personal and professional environments have dramatically shifted. Many employees work virtually now, adding to already diversified workplaces, and if you are a sales executive who has customers with global operations and workforces, you are constantly engaging in a global setting. Furthermore, the world is a melting pot of cultures, and chances are you meet people from other countries all the time. For example, that doctor at the walk-in clinic you visited last week, where is she from? The person next to you on the flight home, what is his background? The point is this: We live in an age where there is more global exposure and perspective than ever, and it infuses all aspects of our lives.

How one conducts business can also be vastly different from country to country and from culture to culture. If you are in a role that is selling and managing client relationships, you will increasingly find yourself working with people from different cultures. One does not need to be a global business traveler to have frequent cross-cultural interactions. Thus, any heightened awareness of your customer’s working style can only benefit you.

Let’s say for example that you work domestically in the U.S. and that you never travel abroad for business, and, in fact, do all of your work virtually. But you have just been introduced to your new contact at ACME Pharmaceuticals. You learn she lives in New Jersey, but she is from France and is on a long-term assignment in the U.S. What assumptions might you make about her that would influence how you communicate and build a selling relationship? Well, without knowing her personal working style, if she’s told you she’s from France and this is her first time in the U.S. for work, you can generally assume a few things that are likely true of her personal working style. The GlobeSmart Profile Cultural Work Style Inventory graph below shows a work style comparison between a typical U.S. American-born worker and a French one.

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What do you notice right away? The typical U.S. American and French worker cultures are pretty similar in how they communicate – both typically pretty direct. But the other cultural dimensions have some fairly  large gaps. And though you may not know your new contact’s personal profile, you can assume that she shares more traits with her own culture than with yours.
Looking at the Risk vs. Certainty dimension, what might this gap mean in terms of your expectation of a sales cycle? People from France tend to be more risk-averse than U.S. Americans, so you may need to alter a few things in your typical approach when corresponding with her. For example, you come to learn how people from France take assess risks and realize that the following may impact the budget and buy-in needed to agree to your proposal:

• The amount of background research and data needed in order to agree to a project

• The degree of consensus-building required before making a final decision

• The value placed on efficiency and speed vs. security and stability

Knowing this, you might state upfront that you do not wish her to consider your proposal until she and her team have everything they need to carefully review it. You might also tailor your communication to be a bit more formal and take more time getting to know her before asking for a commitment. These subtle changes just may convince her that you understand her position better than most (certainly better than most American vendors with whom she has spoken). With your credibility enhanced, the account and business has a better chance to thrive.

We refer to this as style switching. It is also a way to know your customer through the lens of culture. One definition of style switching  is adapting your style to that of your audience to achieve your desired results. Seems simple, right? But how do you do this when you are faced with multiple cultures? Can you even determine what culture an individual represents? Perhaps they are of Asian heritage but were born and raised in Europe. How do you determine what cultural perspective that individual has? The most effective method is to get them to open up about their background and work journey simply by asking probing questions. When working in virtual environments with electronic communication, it is more important than ever to do research on your audience.

Given all of the challenges we have outlined in identifying a person’s style, much less that of an audience, it is even more daunting in our ever-changing world of electronic communication. As noted earlier, technology continues to transform the workplace, and there is increasing attention paid to how we leverage that technology in our work. Because the use of online collaboration tools has substantially reduced direct, face-to-face contact, understanding someone’s cultural orientation is now more challenging than ever.

The good news is that social media can often help fill in the blanks. You can learn a lot about a person’s personal and professional background via social media, such as LinkedIn. This alone can help you make basic some assumptions, and therefore adjustments, in your sales approach. An effective way to gauge the style of an audience is to ask in advance for a list of attendees, and their titles and roles. With even  this little additional knowledge, you can find ideas and strategies to adjust your style to build rapport and influence more effectively.

But, you ask, what if I make a wrong assumption? It can certainly happen, and we’ll share a recent example: AU.S. account manager was asked to virtually present a “best and final” proposal for a global workforce management solution to the Japanese office of a major U.S. company. The account manager had done all of his homework around local labor laws, regulations, work policies and more. He knew the solution would have to adhere to things like the Japanese Labor Union Act, but what he didn’t know about was the attendees.

The attendees in Japan were all Japanese, and the account manager could not find any social media/online background to provide additional context about them. Therefore, applying some cultural awareness strategy, he prepared the presentation and all email correspondence with a formal, Japanese orientation (for example, addressing the clients by their last names plus the suffix -san (e.g., Sakurai-san).

Then the virtual meeting happened. Right away during introductions, the Japanese spoke with U.S. American accents and said first names would be OK.

The account manager assumed a more traditional Japanese meeting, but the audience presented themselves with a Western orientation. It turned out that each Japanese attendee had spent significant time in the U.S. and was very adept at style switching for Americans. But the account manager had gained their respect by preparing to meet them according to their local customs. The presentation went smoothly, and the account manager won the business.

The lesson: Once you know the predominant style of the audience with whom you’re working, adapting to that style will go a long way to disarming your audience. Another example is that, in the U.S., it is typical to start a meeting with a humorous anecdote, but in certain cultures in Asia, this could be considered inappropriate and cause a person to lose credibility. To this Asian audience, starting a meeting by apologizing may be a way to show humility and ingratiate oneself. We recently heard of a consultant from the U.S. who had vast experience in intercultural training, who addressed a Japanese-American audience by discussing the difference between the two cultures and then apologizing for not telling a joke, thereby covering both cultural examples in the same breath.

All of these examples show that cultural sensitivity and awareness is crucial in doing business. All of us are unique and exhibit some evidence of cultural orientation. The key to success is identifying that and adapting to make your customers and colleagues feel comfortable doing business with you.

Of course, style switching requires you to understand your own style first. People develop their personal style in a number of ways. Orientation begins in a person’s earliest years but is subject to change, so assumptions can lead to misinterpretation. The important thing is to approach our work with a global mindset, which starts first with self-awareness. After all, how can you effectively style switch if you don’t know your own style to begin with? Or how you are perceived by others?

Fortunately, there are myriad tools available to help you determine your work style. Are you a very direct person? Do you work best independently or in a group? Are you analytical? Confrontational? Determined? Amiable? All of these play into your style. The trick is to understand it and modify your approach to adapt to that of your audience. Once you have determined your working profile and style, you can begin to adjust to your audience, and the good news is the more you practice it the easier it becomes. As your own cultural agility improves, so will your success in working with global clients and colleagues.

Ray Cavanagh is currently the Global Accounts senior program manager at Kronos. Jesse Rowell is the Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development at Aperian Global. 

How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

By Jennifer Stanley


McKinsey & Co.

B2B sales leaders who use digital effectively enjoy five times the growth rate of their peers who don’t. But a recent McKinsey & Company survey of B2B customers highlights a more nuanced reality. What customers want are great digital interactions and the human touch, depending on what they’re trying to do.

Companies that respond to customer preferences and add the human touch to digital sales consistently outperform their peers. They capture five times more revenue, eight times more operating profit and, for public companies, twice the return to shareholders. This data holds true over a four- to five-year period.

Many sales organizations, however, have trouble putting this human-digital program into practice. The truth is that there are no tried-and-true methods, though technology lies at the heart of customer interaction models to power or inform either the digital or human interaction. Companies need to create the human-digital blend that is most appropriate for their business and their customers. This should not be a random process of trial-and-error testing. What is needed is a systematic way to evaluate the optimal human-digital balance.

This human-digital balance is thrown into particular relief when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), which is having an impact not only on the broader selling profession but also on strategic account management (SAM). Take, for example, the case of “Andy,” a bot introduced recently by a company to help identify, contact and set up appointments for SAMs at their customers. These appointments were in customer business units that had been either unserved or underserved and that displayed decentralized, regionalized buying behaviors.

Andy’s key capability is her ability to rapidly learn what kinds of outreach and communications are working and to instantaneously adapt her methods to suit. After just a few months, new leads were up 50 percent compared to the year before, while new costs for obtaining those leads were down.

Bots are already managing relatively mundane tasks like this at many companies, but could a bot like Andy manage an end-to-end sale for something like a transactional good to a small- or medium-sized business? Researchers at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) have studied more than 2,000 discrete human activities across 800 professions, in 50 different countries, to assess the degree of “automatability” of activities in those professions. In some cases it was 100 percent; in others, it was zero. For management professionals, like SAMs, it was around 30 percent.

Comparing skills that are most crucial for the SAM role — things like managing teams, co-creating value with a customer, managing stakeholder interactions and others — with other types of activities that we don’t traditionally think of as part of the SAM role, the three most essential SAM tasks are only marginally automatable.

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Figure 1. The degree of automatability of tasks by bot (left side) and by humans (right side).

But do customers want to interact with machines?  The answer depends on context, as figure 2 shows. Figure 2 shows the research on how customers buy. The answer: It depends on the context.


When working with a new supplier or vetting a new offer from an existing supplier, 75 percent of customers say they want to deal with an actual human being. As customers move into the evaluation and active-consideration stages, digital tools that provide information, such as comparison tools or online configurators, come into their own, especially when combined with a highly skilled salesforce. When it’s time to renew or update standard terms and conditions, the equation flips, with 85 percent saying they prefer a fully digitized interaction.

In essence, buyers are saying that when co-creating something new and different with a strategic supplier, they’re all for engaging with the SAM. Yet most B2B companies still reward reps more for spending time keeping customers loyal and repurchasing than for uncovering new customer needs or driving demand, which is exactly where customers say they want face-to-face expertise.

So there remains a time and a place for intimate, significant human interaction, and there is a time and a place for bot interaction. The trick is to understand which is which and to adapt the strategic account management approach accordingly.

In particular, there are five areas where humans are needed and can do a better job than AI-empowered machines:

#1: Managing exceptions to standard protocol. Advanced analytics and machines get it wrong a lot of the time, and sometimes you need a human being to actually make the call. A materials company during the height of the economic downturn faced a situation where one of its strategic accounts was experiencing a credit crunch. By any kind of financial or data-driven standard, this supplier should not have extended additional credit to this customer. Now, what a machine couldn’t know is that this was a family-owned business and that the father was getting ready to retire. One son had been tapped to take over the company, while another brother worked at a key competitor that also happened to be one of this supplier’s strategic accounts.

So while the decision not to extend credit may have been “obvious” based on the data, the head of strategic accounts, who was familiar with the situation, worked with the father to find a solution. In the end, the father was happy, which made both sons happy — and which kept both strategic accounts in play.

#2: Using judgment in situations of ambiguity. When data is new and unlike anything that a machine has seen, the machine won’t know what to do with it.  That’s where managers come in.

A company may be in an industry experiencing substantial mergers and acquisitions or business closures. In a merger situation, it is highly likely that the customer having the more advantageous terms with a supplier will ask for those same terms for the other account.  It takes human judgment to plow through those terms and conditions and to make tradeoffs based on the role the strategic account(s) plays in an overall portfolio.

#3: Shaping strategy. Humans still must shape the overall commercial strategy in light of their growth goals — even if machines take over part of the work, like analyzing buyer trends, determining new sources of growth or predicting whether accounts are at risk of full or partial churn.

#4: Nurturing a complex ecosystem of relationships. Because today’s customer-supplier ecosystem is so complex, with interconnected webs of relationships including those forged digitally, it requires even more thought to select the most appropriate people to invite into the ecosystem and then to manage the content shared with them. SAMs need to determine not only who is in the network but also on whom to focus at different times and in different situations with the customer. This requires SAMs to know who are the most influential decision makers within an account and to build this knowledge into their account plans. While there are tools today that can illustrate the breadth and depth of relationships based on social media presence and suggest who are the influencers, such machine-based data still cannot replace you knowing your customer deeply –- who is on the way up, who is on the way out and who you will need in your corner. When we rely too much on the data to tell us how our customers are likely to behave and not enough on our own intuition and personal knowledge, that’s when SAMs can run into trouble.

#5: Focusing the power of advanced analytics. SAMs should embrace advanced analytics for their ability to help us to have more, and more productive, value-creating conversations with strategic customers. This is the area where AI can make our jobs not only a lot easier but also a lot more fun.

This means taking the data for what it is but then testing and retesting it. If the data suggests ways to generate additional volume, grow revenue, cut costs — whatever the outcome is that you’re looking for with your strategic account — you can pilot, you can test and you can learn.  But you still need to use good business judgment.  For example, experimenting with next-product/service-to-buy algorithms can support cross-sell activities, but if it’s not a good time to have the conversation with the customer, those activities need to wait.

To stay ahead, there are two areas where SAMs need to raise the bar in terms of using advanced analytics to help deliver on customers’ needs:

#1: Know your products, services and data offers much more intimately than you do today. Customers today have access to a wealth of information about your offerings via digital platforms and their own personal networks; if they are going to have an actual conversation with a SAM, they expect a deeper level of insight and expertise than what they can find online.

#2: Become an expert advisor. Data is best at suggesting different options, but where humans can provide the most value is in making decisions using that data. SAMs need to get good at making sense of data to make better decisions. For example, there is a global producer of wind turbines that uses AI and big data to guide decisions on where customers should locate their next round of turbines. But even with this data, succeeding with large customers still requires a SAM to have a nuanced, highly informed and consultative conversation with stakeholders whose job it is to decide where to build and place the turbines. While data like barometric pressure, predicted weather forecasts, topography, population demographics and more are critical inputs to those decisions, humans still need to choose whether or not to follow the data in light of other investment considerations.

In the end, the biggest benefit of AI to the SAM profession may be in its ability to make the job more fun. SAMs spend only about 10 percent of their time on creative pursuits, such as brainstorming new offers. With all the time SAMs currently spend making appointments, following up on invoices and putting out fires at the customer, that is time that could instead be spent coaching teams, boosting social and emotional intelligence, and on other high-value activities. This is where the bots can step in and help. SAMs should embrace the bots for what they can do to free up time that can be spent doing more interesting and creative things – like becoming more human with their customers.

Jennifer Stanley will deliver a keynote address at SAMA’s Pan-European Conference 14-15 March 2019 in Amsterdam.

A personal note from SAMA’s new CEO

By Denise Freier

President and CEO


After being at SAMA for a few months as the new CEO, I wanted to reach out and share some early observations and appreciation for your support during my transition. I believe that it is vital for SAMA to continue to find more channels of engagement so that we can make SAMA more essential to you, our SAMA community.

First, I need to share that I am very thankful for my predecessor, Bernard Quancard, and the SAMA staff for where we are today. I’ve also had the pleasure of engaging with many of you, either by phone or in person at a SAMA event. These last few months have been equal parts humbling, challenging and energizing — humbling because our community is made up of so many smart, driven and passionate individuals…challenging because the business world is changing so rapidly, and SAMA has to evolve to keep pace…and energizing because I believe more strongly than ever in SAMA’s potential to positively impact the present AND future of our members.

In all, I’ve had conversations with roughly 75 SAMA stakeholders, including customers, SAMA board members and training partners. Here are a few early observations that I want to share:

  • Many of you consider SAMA a “best-kept secret.” We need to continually evolve our offerings to remain your key business partner, further develop our value proposition, and do a better job of communicating to our members.
  • We want to nurture a wider and richer community to accelerate the discovery of changing trends and proven best practices.
  • We will continue to build our library of original research and thought leadership to make sure you have the latest insights and information you need in order to become (and remain) essential to your strategic customers.
  • We need to stay laser-focused on our on-time execution. That means producing “turnkey” insights, resources and training that you can put to immediate use with your customers.
  • We intend to do more to foster peer-to-peer exchanges with ideas such as micro-communities within the larger SAMA community for more targeted connections. SAMA will work to make it easier for you to connect with peers.

As we move into the next few months, where would YOU like to see us focus our attention? Please feel free to respond to this email, pick up the phone or bend my ear at the next SAMA event.

Thank you again for your commitment to joining our efforts to elevate our unique practice of strategic account management around the world.


Denise Freier joined SAMA in 2018 after more than 40 years of executive and sales leadership at IBM.

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