3 unexpected cultural differences that required adapting my business tactics


Unexpected Cultural Differences

Unexpected Cultural DifferencesOnce you start crossing international borders for business, you must recognize that every culture is uniquely different.

You cannot judge these unexpected cultural differences as right or wrong. If you do, you are falling into the trap of assuming that your culture is superior to others, and the mindset that “if they are not like me, then they are wrong.”

This is counterproductive and will also take away from experiences that you can enjoy and remember for the rest of your life.

The FITTskills curriculum covers the importance of cultural considerations in multiple courses. These courses are my personal favorites because it’s fascinating that we can be so different.

With respect and acceptance, we are in for a treat when we recognize how close we can become and how much we can learn from other cultures.

Above and beyond personal relationships and experiences, are the business implications of making snap judgements and being unprepared for cultural distinctions.

Learning about other cultures before attempting a business relationship can make all the difference between success and failure in that venture. The following three personal scenarios drive the point home about the value of doing research about the cultures you plan to do business with:

1. Taking notes doesn’t always show interest

Having been raised and cultured in Canada, I was taught to actively listen and show interest in what’s being said, especially if this communication is with your customer.

I developed a habit of walking into meetings with a note book and jotting down important points and action items. This behavior was always encouraged and positively reinforced.

During one of my meetings abroad, I was very surprised when the person asked: “I notice that every time we meet you bring your book and you take notes. Why?”

I explained the reason and emphasized the importance of the meeting, but he found it rather strange that I couldn’t retain the information in my head without the need to take notes. It was perceived as a weakness rather than a sign of interest and respect.

When we met again later, I made sure my hands were free and we both had a good laugh as we discussed cultural differences.

Not everyone in that culture was the same and it is possible that this might have been a one off, but the incident did open my eyes.

I realized that I can be doing something that I feel is clearly showing complete respect, no matter how small, and it can be perceived  differently by others.

Being aware and adapting is very valuable.

2. Leading with your best price may not be sound business

How would you feel if the first question you received during a negotiation meeting was “How much of a discount can you offer us?” You would probably blame yourself and conclude that you hadn’t articulated the true value of your solution.

When I lived this scenario, I was also thinking that if I am chosen solely based on price, I will eventually lose the business to someone else’s larger discount.

As I learned more about this culture, it was evident that the higher the discount percentage shown on your financial proposal, the higher your chances of winning.

The large discount reflects well on the decision maker’s negotiation skills and abilities.

This meant that you have to offer a much higher list price at the start, taking into account the discount levels you would have to offer through multiple negotiation rounds.

More often than not, the final round would involve a senior person who would ask for an additional discount, and it meant that you would get the business if you agreed. This way, you make them look influential and everyone is happy.

This culture dictated that you do not offer your best price from the start, or you will be at a huge disadvantage compared to those who did their research and were aware of this practice.

3. Getting down to direct business talk works in some markets, but…

One of my first business calls at IBM was to a U.S. customer who attended one of our events in New York. I started by introducing myself and then made the mistake of asking “How are you?”

He replied “I don’t know you, you don’t know me, what do you want?”

Clearly, I had to go through some adjustments to cater to the style of a busy New Yorker, nothing personal.

I jumped right into business and explained that I am following up on his requests from the IBM event he attended. His reply was very pleasant once he knew that I wasn’t wasting his time, and it was a courtesy follow up to something he expressed interest in. I learned a valuable lesson.

Another time, I tried this direct style face-to-face in an attempt to schedule a meeting in a high context culture. I went right into business and the “dry” conversation lasted less than five minutes.

I learned my lesson again; so I started my second attempt by complaining about the weather and three hours later, I had made a new friend and a business associate.

The moral of the stories are, it always pays off to learn about cultural differences, and if you encounter similar situations, be respectful and adaptable as long as common ethics and integrity are not jeopardized.

Have you been in a situation where you had to quickly adapt to a new culture? How do you find out about cultural differences before doing business in a new market?

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: Louei Ali, MBA, CITP|FIBP

Louei is the Director of Business Development at Canada Topp Group based in London Ontario (Canada). Canada Topp Group is an export trading company that helps Canadian companies with opportunities and business development in over 40 countries by acting as their export arm to reach a well established community of qualified distributors.

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