Opinion

Why ignoring cultural differences will cost you sales

6 min read

10 April 2014

Organisations working across cultures have many issues to consider that may not be necessary within a single market, where language, buying motivations and marketing campaigns are all well understood.

Organisations venturing into broader markets may recognise the need to switch languages, but may not recognise how subtle cultural differences can impact sales.

Communication is more than just language choice. For example, using assertive language may be interpreted as strong and confident in one culture. However, another culture may value implicit, less direct language, and may consider an assertive style as aggressive and rude. The use of culture specific metaphors that may be effective in a single market may have no meaning in another culture. For example, telling a client they need to ‘touch base’ with someone may be lost in translation to a culture unfamiliar with baseball analogy.

Non-verbal communication is important and may not always translate across cultures. For example, remaining at arm’s length from another person may be considered respectful by one culture but cold and disengaged by another. Eye contact and gestures can also send different messages. A prolonged, steady gaze may show engagement and interest in one culture, aggression in another culture, and over familiarity in a third culture.

Different cultures conduct business in different ways. Decision making, negotiating and resolving conflict are skills good sales people develop. However, a successful sales executive in one market could be exactly the wrong person in another market if they don’t have the ability to switch their style to adapt to a different way of doing business.

The decision making process may be very clear in some cultures. Authority, budgets, and other transactional factors make it clear who holds the power in a particular organisation. However, in other cultures, it’s more about who you know and how well you develop that relationship as to when and how a decision will be made. This person may not be in the expected position within their company’s official organisation chart. Thus, organisations that are comfortable in a transaction focused environment could miss the importance of that well connected person, especially if it is unclear what their official role is, or if their influence seems to be mismatched to their job title or position.

Negotiation can take longer and involve different people within an organisation’s hierarchy. If the sales executive feels pressured to close a deal by a certain deadline, this may be used as a positive negotiation point with people who are very transactional in their decision making styles (i.e. getting a bigger discount or other financially favourable deal), especially if the chain of command is short. However, with many relationship cultures, especially those with many layers, the same pressure is more likely to cause a feeling of distrust and thus stall the sale or worse.

Resolving conflict varies across cultures as well. Know when to be accommodating, when to challenge, and when to collaborate – these behaviours may have a different impact across cultures. For example, an accommodating approach may come across as weak in Russia but resonate in Brazil. Challenging in the USA may appeal to the American sense of healthy competition, but may repel their Dutch counterpart, who is expecting a collaborative approach.

Successful sales executives learn what motivates their buyers. Learning what motivates buyers in different cultures will expand their skills when selling across cultures. Some cultures value a subtle, low key style and an understated product. Others may prefer an attention catching style and a product that can be shown off to a wide audience.

Some cultures are likely to respond to things that are new, improved and exciting. Others are comfortable with tradition, a sense of stability and a reinforcement of legacy or how something fits in without changing the status quo.

More subtle cultural differences may be expressed through preferences determined by local beliefs, such as favouring or avoiding certain colours or numbers. For example, the colour red may represent good fortune in one culture, marriage in another, and over the top in a third culture. Failing to adapt to the local market will quickly lose sales.

Finally, mind your manners and remember other people’s cultural sensitivities. Simple business etiquette faux pas have been the downfall of many sales that seemed to be ‘in the bag’. Choosing to celebrate a deal at a steakhouse with your Hindu customers could be a fatal dining choice. So could blowing your nose publicly at the end of a meeting with your Japanese business partner or hugging your client’s Saudi female executive in the Middle East.

Regardless of which cultures are being addressed, sales executives are generally most successful when their products and services appeal to their markets. Understanding how they appeal and how to leverage this knowledge is the key to success. Ignoring cultural differences in different markets – even distinctly different markets back home across various demographics – is a formula for failure.

Declan Mulkeen is Marketing Director at Communicaid, a culture and business communication skills consultancy providing cultural awareness training.

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