How to: be aware of business cultures

Often underestimated, the role of business culture is actually very important to selling successfully in overseas markets. Exporting will bring your company into contact with a range of different business styles. Cultural considerations can often determine issues such as how your customer likes to be communicated with, or how long it will take to win a particular deal. It also dictates how formal your initial encounters are likely to be.


Although your customer won’t expect you to be familiar with all of the nuances of their particular culture, it is an important factor that you should include in your research of any market. Some countries (such as the USA, Great Britain, the Benelux countries, Germany and Switzerland) tend to be quite transactional in nature. In these cases, there is very little small talk before meetings, and you can expect to get down to business quite quickly. In many other places such as southern Europe and in the Middle East or Asia, personal relationships are the cornerstone of doing business. This means your prospective customer needs to know and trust you before they will do business with your company. This process can take a long time and involves regular face-to-face contact, so your business plan should reflect this. It’s unrealistic to expect quick sales in a market where local relationships are important. There are many resources on the web for finding out more about doing business in specific countries, for example here.


As a foreigner, it’s a good start to show customers that you are aware that cultural differences exist and that they are different to your own. If in doubt, follow the lead of your hosts in a meeting, or if possible, ask questions before the meeting so you can be prepared. The duration and start times of meetings can vary widely across the globe. As a good general rule, it’s important to remain patient in places where a more relaxed approach to timekeeping prevails. Spanish-speaking cultures are typically hierarchical in nature. This means that you may have to work your way through several layers in your target organisation before reaching the final decision maker. Most countries are accustomed to dealing with women in business settings. Be aware that in certain countries, such as where the religion is predominantly Muslim, the norms include not offering to shake a woman’s hand but to wait until she does so.


Some industry sectors are almost exclusively English-speaking in many places throughout the world. However, in reality, the more embedded you wish to become in a market, the more likely it is that you will need some form of language capability in your business. Most prospective customers won’t expect you to be fluent, but they will appreciate your good cultural understanding if you contact them in advance to ask what language your meeting will be in. For more detailed business discussions, there are many translation or interpreting services you can use if you feel it’s necessary. Depending on the value of that market to your business, it may make sense to appoint a local salesperson who can speak with customers in their own language.


It’s important to tailor your approach to each market to reflect local customs. You can expect customers in the USA or Great Britain to respond to emails promptly, but in Turkey, for example, direct visits in person are essential to making progress. Similarly, cold calling is of limited value in places where people need to know you first. In meetings, it’s also worth knowing about the communication style of your opposite number. Middle Eastern and Asian cultures place great importance on the concept of “face”, which makes people reluctant to say no for fear it will offend. You will need to read between the lines to understand whether your prospect is genuinely interested in what you are selling.

Case study: Interactive Services

Interactive Services ( provides bespoke mobile and e-learning solutions to large corporates with geographically dispersed workforces. Its customers include leading brands such as Visa, UBS, Citibank, Diageo and Colgate-Palmolive. The many global companies headquartered in France made it an obvious market to target. Paul Kelly, VP for Global Learning Solutions, explains how the company dealt with the French business culture.


The thing that really shocked me, when I first started dealing in France, was how open they tended to be. In Britain, if something uncomfortable would come up in a meeting, they would go into a huddle or take it offline. In France, if two parties disagree on the client side, they’ll have that discussion there and then until they resolve it. That can feel uncomfortable when you’re on the sales side but I’ve always liked the fact that they speak their minds. I’ve always found French people to be very straightforward in giving feedback. They tell you what they want and that’s always much more helpful. All the European stereotypes – that the French are really difficult to do business with – I’ve never encountered anything like that. The decision-making process has been very quick, the relationships with stakeholders have been great.

I know that certain organisations would receive pressure in the same way that British, Irish, or American organisations do to buy from native companies, but I’ve personally never encountered it. I’ve never found working in France any harder than working in Great Britain or US. With our client base, we tend to build very long relationships for years and years. We get to know them so invariably you build some personal ties and you have some consistency in the relationship.



I think the experience is going to be different for different companies. Sometimes the selling part is not the difficult part. Before we get into the project delivery, there’s a very high quality of communication between the whole group on a medium like email … but when the project has been agreed and you’re going to start the work, what happens then is, you invite a secondary group in, who are the subject matter experts – the custodians of the content internally. That could involve a health and safety programme. In some instances, because they’re technical experts, the quality of their English may not be so great. The key thing we’ve learned to do at that point is to deal with that by investing in the relationship upfront.
If you just rely on email, all sorts of misconceptions can start to creep in about what one party or another party means. The process of communicating by email only could sabotage the whole process. If you just want to confirm something, use email. But if you want to have a discussion and you think it’s going to be contentious, create a WebEx conference, or pick up the phone, or arrange to meet them. Overinvesting in communication at the start pays dividends later. The reason long term relationships are important is, you get a feel for how certain companies approach certain problems. So you can compensate for something that might worry you at the beginning. You realise it might be part of the company’s cultural rules.


We recognise in France there are very large international organisations and very large French domestic organisations. It’s very difficult for us in the latter category: we had been trying to deal with one and it was very difficult. They wanted a local French partner, they wanted the ability for our people to go to regional areas and talk to experts in French. There’s no international aspect to that company and therefore we tend not to do well in those companies. The customer was worried – and it’s a genuine concern – that if you ask the engineer to talk about something that’s safety-critical for an e-learning module, you want that conversation in their native language so there’s no issue around the clarification of what that script meant. We thought about French-language marketing material in the past but eventually we’re going to end up dealing with customers through English. We’ve always been very transparent about our language. We’re primarily an English-language company. Occasionally we’ve worked with a third-party partner where another language has been really important, but it’s better to start off completely honest about who you are. I wouldn’t recommend trying to dress yourself up as something you’re not.

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