Exporting? Then do your cultural homework

It’s pretty obvious when you think about it – selling successfully in export markets requires an understanding of the culture of the people you are dealing with. In spite of English being used as a global language for business, cultural differences can create powerful barriers to communication.

Culture can be defined as the way we do things and see things around us.  The way we do things is determined by values and beliefs we shared in common with people brought up in the same community.  These values are reflected in business practices.  For example: Do people pay more attention to what you say or to what you write? Can you do business with someone without building a good relationship with that person?  When people from different cultures work together they bring with them different expectations on how things should be done. Problems are often caused by those expectations.

The good news is that there are no good ways or bad ways of doing things, just different approaches. 70% of problems encountered in business (as in most relationships!) are not real problems but problems in communication. You need to understand how your clients and suppliers see and do business and recognise that their processes may be different from yours.  Unfortunately there isn’t a single global formula to deal with a global market.  You need to be culturally aware of the differences depending on the markets you are targeting.

You may believe that you will succeed because your product is good. You will present it professionally, with clear specifications, good prices, competent marketing and good distribution. You may be following the so called Anglo-Saxon business model as it is done in Northern Europe, USA, Canada and Australia.   However, there are other communities – Southern Europe, Russia, Latin-America, China and Japan among them – where you mainly do business with people you trust. Building a personal relationship is absolutely critical in these geographies so try and adapt your communication and relationship-building style in order to match your client’s expectations.

Cultural exporting tips

•    Do your homework. Get as much information about the country as you can.
•    Think about language implications.  Have your product or service brochure in the local language. Learn some of the language.
•    Research cultural culture differences. Some differences are easier to understand than others.  Protocol: business cards, greetings, degree of formality in business relationships.
•    If you are dealing with a country where relationships are important then give yourself time to get to know your customers. Don’t over-cram your visits with meetings – make time to socialise and view it as a part of the business process.
•    If you are using English as a means of communication then keep it simple.  Remember that other people have made an effort to learn it and it may not be their first language.

Follow these five points and avoid making a cultural faux pas that may damage your business.

This article was written by Aurora Longo who is a Spanish language and international culture expert. She is the author of two best-selling BBC books on the subject.