Master your inner chameleon and excel in exports


Be a Chameleon to succeed in new markets

Be a Chameleon to succeed in new markets

Three Canadian exporters were sharing their frustrations one evening:

“My new agent in Munich, southern Germany, can’t get along with his own countrymen in Hamburg in the north where the main potential for business is for us, so he isn’t making any sales!” blurted out a Canadian furniture exporter.

“That’s nothing!” replied another. “Last year we appointed a new agent in London to cover the European market—she had terrific qualifications: experienced in our line of business, speaks five languages,and our UK sales have gone up by 150 percent! But there’s nothing coming in from the rest of Europe!”

He then confessed that he had hired an independent firm to investigate the problem and found that the London-based agent had difficulty establishing credibility in France, Germany, Italy and Spain because she was seen as a ‘Brit’. The agent was fluent in several languages, but she spoke them with a noticeable British accent.

When delving further, potential clients and distributors in those countries eventually admitted to reacting negatively to her pitch, in spite of the fact that the Canadian products were competitively-priced.

The feedback was that the European buyers preferred to do business with unilingual North Americans, rather than with intermediaries who were difficult to pigeonhole.

In desperation, the Canadian exporter made direct contact with the same potential clients in the rest of Europe, and even without any linguistic or other cultural assets, was much more successful in making export sales than his ‘multilingual’ agent based in London.

The third exporter had learned to speak Spanish fluently from an Argentine teacher, and had felt sure that he would be able to make inroads by himself throughout Latin America.

Even though he introduced himself as a Canadian, he soon found out that potential customers in the other Spanish-speaking countries where anti-Argentine bias existed, had developed a subconscious negative feeling towards him and blocked him from making any sales.

He was eventually successful when he spoke Spanish with a fake foreign accent, which is what clients expected from a North American “gringo” anyway.

Humble chameleons get the global business

Today, the secret to excel in exports is to learn how to interact and be accepted by people who are not like us, who speak a different language, who think, act, feel and react differently to what we are used to. To do so, we need to learn from chameleons—a type of lizard that is distinguished by its ability to change skin color to match its surroundings.

In human terms, the ability to instinctively adjust and “fit-in” is vital to survival in the social jungle.

It has been said that the people who will succeed are those who “know how to interact with other people,” and that the ability to easily meet and converse with new people is the secret of personal and professional success anywhere in the world. The challenge is that many find this difficult to do in their own day-to-day circles, and even in their own language.

Perhaps the real secret is learning to be more humble, admitting to a desire to learn from others, or to an inability to speak or understand another’s language, and sincerely showing a desire to learn and adjust oneself to others.

Missing other export opportunities

Cambridge University Press says that English is spoken by over 2 billion people in 75 countries. Understandably, many unilingual Anglophones still only rely on their brand, pricing and product quality to overcome international markets’ cultural and linguistic barriers.

However, even greater opportunities become available by being able to communicate more effectively with others. Missed cultural cues, the use of impersonal interpreters and lacking the ability to easily blend into a foreign market often block commercial successes that many are unaware of having missed.

Hard tools and soft talents for breaking into global markets

Penetrating international markets requires several basic tools and a number of special talents. Most North Americans are good at using the ‘hard tools’: good research, a clear and logical business plan, sufficient money to stay the course, and entrepreneurial ability to try to meet a buyer’s needs and other proven attributes.

The ‘soft talents’ are more difficult to learn, and include an acceptance and understanding of the target country’s culture and society, the ability to appreciate and fit into that market’s ways of doing business, a sympathetic non-judgmental ear, the curiosity to learn and accept others’ unspoken social mores, the willingness to try to understand the body language messages of another culture, and a subconscious agreement that others’ ways of doing things are also okay.

Regardless of the many tools and talents that North Americans already have, the basic tools an exporter needs today are the chameleonic ability to fit-in, adjust and communicate in a way that will open new doors and a world of new opportunities!

Have you ever experienced setbacks like the frustrated exporters in this article? How did you overcome them?

 Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Ennio Vita-Finzi, CITP|FIBP

Ennio Vita-Finzi is a Certified International Trade Professional (CITP) and was a Trade Commissioner in Europe, Latin America and the US as well as President of the Canadian Council for the Americas during NAFTA negotiations. He has been a multinational executive and entrepreneur and is now a College lecturer, keynote speaker, and author based in Montreal. (

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