Export Opportunities & Cultural Differences

Export marketing will be crucial to your prospects – however it is key to always remember “cultural differences” in the back of your mind when putting together a strategy and approach.

What is the norm, what is comfortable, what you have always done, might not necessarily work in a new, foreign market.

Cultural dissonance is very common for those who believe it’s business as usual when working globally. That’s why you need a culture-savvy marketing plan. As well as capturing goals, milestones, key tasks, budgets and KPIs it should always be flexible and adaptable to new audiences.

Some tips on cultural awareness

1.    Research, research, research. Before diving into any export market, whether a country or a region, do your research, and do it gooood. You must understand more than who you can sell to – you need to understand the country, the people, their habits, your sector’s place in the wider marketplace, potential obstacles and even if there is potential for ROI. Look online but also approach export support organisations.

2.    Learn from your competition. If you plan to sell into another country, the easiest way to understand the culture of the sector you are entering is to watch and learn from local competitors. Carry out a SWOT analysis of how they market themselves, their service or product.

3.    Examine cultural differences. The importance of cultural differences cannot be underestimated. Culture impacts people’s buying habits, how they respond to marketing messages, colours, website pages, how your product/service might be used and even how your company sounds in their language! Go over every aspect of your offering and get local input to avoid banana-skins.

4.    Speak the lingo. People buy out of trust and most people trust something sold to them in their language. You have to invest in good quality translation and localization to ensure your messages are culturally on-point. This applies to everything from emails to leaflets to adverts to PPC campaigns.

5.    Alternative marketing channels. Not everyone markets the same products in the same way. One country may rely on search engines to sell a product whereas another uses printed catalogues. Find out what the local marketing channels are you need to be using.

6.    Get sales inline. If you are going to shout about something to sell, make sure the people doing the selling have the skills to convert. Can they deal with emails? Phone calls? How are they with foreign accents? Can they even take payments from abroad?

7.    Face time.  Forget virtual communication via apps; if you want to win business in some parts of the word it’s all about face time. Building relationships and developing trust are key means of securing business in much of the world and this can only be done face-to-face. So get ready for lots of flights!

The heart of successful export marketing is in wanting people to buy what you have to sell – however, you can’t do this if you don’t understand what it is that makes those people tick. This is why cultural awareness is so crucial.

Considerations for Overseas Business Culture

Flexibility and cultural adaptation should be the guiding principles for business travel abroad. Some of the cultural differences U.S. companies most often face involve the following: business styles, attitudes toward business relationships and punctuality, negotiating styles, gift-giving customs, greetings, significance of gestures, meanings of colors and numbers, and conventions regarding the use of titles. Prepare for your overseas visits by reading travel guides located in most libraries and bookstores, and take advantage of our U.S. Commercial Service resources listed further below.

Tips for Business Travel Abroad

Greetings, Business Card Protocol

  • Get to know proper use of names and titles. In many countries (including Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom), it is appropriate to use titles until use of first names is suggested. First names are seldom used by those doing business in Germany. Visiting business people should use the surname preceded by the title. Titles such as “Herr Direktor” are sometimes used to indicate prestige, status, and rank. In Thailand, however, people address one another by first names and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications. In Belgium, it is important to address French-speaking business contacts as “Monsieur” or “Madame,” whereas Flemish-speaking contacts should be addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” To misuse these titles is a great faux pas.
  • Use the appropriate greetings. When cultural lines are being crossed, something as simple as a greeting can be misunderstood. Traditional greetings include shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and placing the hands in praying position. The “wrong” greeting can lead to an awkward encounter.
  • Know business card protocol. Card giving is a key part of business protocol. In Japan, for example, the Western practice of accepting a business card and pocketing it immediately is considered rude. The proper approach is to carefully look at the card after accepting it, and acknowledge with a nod that the information has been digested, and perhaps make a relevant comment or ask a polite question.
  • Understand varied approaches to gift-giving customs. In some cultures such as Japan, gifts are expected, and failure to present them is considered an insult. In other countries, though, the presentation of a gift may be viewed as an offense. Business executives also need to know when to present a gift such as on the initial visit or afterward); where to present the gift (in public or privately); what type of gift to present; and how many gifts are appropriate.
  • Speak a few words in your buyer’s native tongue. Your buyers or business associates will appreciate the effort. Words of welcome on your website, and maybe a currency converter, will further demonstrate your interest in doing business in mutually respectful ways.

Building Contacts, Staffing Up, and Negotiating

  • Always answer queries politely and promptly. Don’t delay when responding to e-mail, fax, and telephone requests for price lists, quotes, and other information. Build your own marketing list from the contacts. Ask for each customer’s communication preferences. The query you ignore today might have been a source of future business.
  • Get an intern or hire a new employee. As business develops with overseas customers, consider recruiting a student intern or recent college graduate who speaks the language and understands the business culture
  • Attend a trade show. Find one in your industry that’s attended by foreign buyers. You can make good contacts—even sales—and test the waters before heading overseas. Also, consider attending an international trade show in your industry. U.S. embassies abroad often staff a national pavilion where U.S. sellers can meet foreign buyers.
  • Plan your negotiating strategy. Negotiating is more complicated in international transactions because of the potential for cultural misunderstandings. It is essential to understand the importance of rank in the other country, who the decision makers are, and the business style of the foreign company. Also, understand the nature of agreements there, and the significance of gestures and negotiating etiquette
  • Start with what you know. Learn from your domestic customers. Apply cultural knowledge gained from people from different social and ethnic backgrounds than yourself.

Diverse Cultures, Different Concepts of Time  

  • Be patient, few markets have a faster business pace than the United States; many are slower.
  • Be aware of direct vs. casual business styles. In some countries, business people have a very direct style, while in others they are subtler. Personal relationships may be more valued than is customary in most U.S. business relationships. For example, in the Middle East, indulging in small talk before engaging in the business at hand is standard practice.
  • Take time to develop personal relationships. This is especially true with distributors or large-volume buyers. Remembering birthdays and other notable events is a good intercultural business practice.
  • Find out the attitudes toward punctuality. For example, Romanians, Japanese, and Germans are very punctual, whereas people in many Latin countries have a more relaxed attitude toward time. The Japanese consider it rude to be late for a business meeting but acceptable—even fashionable—to be late for a social occasion. In Guatemala, though, people often arrive from 10 minutes early to 45 minutes late for a luncheon appointment.
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