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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Tread delicately across cultural divides
Building bridges: Use simple language when communicating with colleagues of different nationalities, advise experts.

How do you succeed at international sales' Well, start by remembering your passport if you’re on the first flight of the day to see a client overseas.

“On one of my first trips I set my alarm for 4.30 am,” says John Andrews, a strategic international account manager at Lyreco, an office supplies company.

“I’d packed my bag the night before because I was so paranoid about being late ...and I put my passport in the jacket pocket of my suit. But when my alarm woke me, for some reason I decided to wear a different suit. I was nearly at the airport when I realised — and my wife got the phone call.”

Remembering the paperwork is a fairly straightforward challenge, but there are many more subtle changes to be made when working with people overseas.

For example, when Andrews, who manages local sales staff in a number of countries, started his job three years ago, he was accustomed to sending short, efficient e-mails that simply said what he wanted done and by when.

He changed this approach after getting feedback that people from some countries felt that he was being rude or abrupt by not starting the message with a friendly greeting.

He also advises against colloquialisms and suggests keeping the language simple.

“Realise that it’s going to 10 people with different levels of English. And keep different timelines in mind when deciding when they have to get back to you.” A request e-mailed at the start of the British working day might not be read for hours by recipients in Asia or North America.

Being aware of bank holidays is just the start of understanding different cultures.

“With international deals the key thing is about understanding customers’ businesses across multiple platforms, not just how they operate abroad, but how that differs from the UK,” says Kevin Shirley, a corporate account manager at Vodafone.

Mareike Busche, a key account manager at IIR Germany, sells her company’s car industry conferences from its UK office to clients around the world.

She says that each culture has its own approach to sales and needs to be handled accordingly. “In Japan, for example, they are a bit more careful. You have to do more work to overcome their hesitation to come to Europe and test us,” Busche says.

And it’s not just how you make the calls but how often you make them, she says. “In some countries you have to be careful not to call too often, whereas in others you have to be a bit more aggressive.”

It’s also essential to be aware of the market dynamics in each country you deal with.

“Competition is very different. You have to make sure that you bring across the benefits (of your product) properly. You have to read national trade papers and newspapers because you have to know the market you’re selling into and you have to be aware when it changes.”

For example, exhaust emissions have tended not to be a big deal for the US automotive industry but that is now changing. Reading about this helped Busche to see new opportunities for selling her products there.

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