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. 

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