In the last two decades the world has seen a major shift. Technology advancements and social media have made global distances virtual and a non-issue for sellers. Diverse cultures have opened, opening opportunities for smart salespeople who can navigate cultures other than their own.
Most Indigenous IT organizations use the domestic market as the grooming ground for their sales professionals. Those who succeed in the local market are offered onsite posting as a reward and recognition. This deputation served to fulfill Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the sellers. In my sales career I had the privilege of selling in India for over 2 decades covering various states, but the one-year stint in the Middle East remains unique and enriching.
Deep reflection of this stint and interactions with international clients- made me realize the importance of cross-cultural orientation for sellers. So how can salespeople prepare for success across cultures? Below are insights based on my experience-
Unlearn, Learn and Relearn
The simple prescription for a seller moving to a different geography is “Unlearn, Learn and Relearn.” Cultural nuances of the earlier territory could be a baggage and is best unlearnt at the earliest during transition. Thenext step is to learn the cultural landscape of the new region. Habits die hard and it is not easy to imbibe aspects pertaining to new culture quickly. Hence sellers must make conscious efforts to relearn the nuances every day. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, said a wise man. I think cultural adoption across geographies must be part of sales strategy in organizations.
Learn swimming in the pool.
Most onsite readiness programs and cross-cultural orientation sessions are good to prepare the employee for the unfamiliar environment. Plethora of information is available in the social media providing tips regarding countries, etiquettes et.al. But the real learning happens at the client interface. I remember waiting in the corridor of a client organization along with my manager on Day 2 of my landing in the GCC nation. Two nationals in their traditional attire greeted each other with a cheek kiss. I was anxious for a moment and asked my manager if we needed to do the same while meeting the client. He laughed and said a simple handshake will do. This simple instance made me learn something new that day- a childlike curiosity is necessary to observe and learn from varied cultures.
Birds of the same feather flock together in sales. Sellers are comfortable with their region, language, people et.al. However, with the emergence of a global village, there is a need to get acquainted with the unknown. Early on in my career in Bengaluru, I used to meet clients at a leisurely slow pace but when I went to Mumbai I realized the value of every single minute, where meeting clients was in a fast-paced manner. So, there is a need for sellers to change the pace and style to suit the client’s situation. This is more pertinent in international context, where the commonalities between an expat seller and client are few.
I remember a sales meet in which an impending price negotiation was discussed in detail. One of the members casually commented “He belongs to XYZ- they will suck every dollar from the seller during negotiation.” Suddenly there was an uproar in the hall. Since it was an internal meeting with sellers from the same geography, hence the fire was doused quickly. Had it been in any other forum the result of stereotyping could have been devastating for the seller.
Authenticity in accepting cultures.
Sometimes sellers have the tendency to please the clients by trying to manifest the practices of geography. While the intent is to be in good books, seller’s actions which are not authentic end up putting off the client rather than pleasing him/her. Clients expect sellers to respect their culture and do not expect symbolic or superficial acts. Being authentic and truthful is more important than trying to mimic and mess up the situation.
Build or losing trust
If trust is the foundation for human relationships, then sellers need to go all out to build it with clients over time. However, in an international context sellers and their organizations cannot afford any faux paus or take clients for granted. Thoughts, acts, and deeds have far-reaching implications in diverse cultures.
A Client Partner successfully managing relationships with Energy clients in the United Kingdom was deputed to a Middle East country to nurture a large Oil & Gas client. There was a delivery escalation in the first month and the client canceled the order when it was not rectified in a few days. The puzzled Client Partner enquired why a due process of serving notice or termination did not happen as stated in the contract. The Delivery Manager said if a matrimonial relationship can be broken by three utterances in the region, how do you expect a long rope for a delivery issue.
Appreciating the other side of the coin
An amazing aspect I could observe in clients is the time and effort they invest to understand the cultural background of the seller, his/her country, and organization. Since outsourcing/offshoring has become unavoidable in some developed nations- organizations orient their managers to understand and appreciate the culture of the service provider. If the captive unit of a MNC in Bengaluru celebrates thanksgiving, the parent company at Seattle organizes Diwali get together. While sellers could have an extensive list of challenges in dealing with overseas clients, buyers also put their skin in the game and reputation by working with service providers. At the end of the day, it is human beings on both sides of the table who need to respect and work together.
Summing it up:
Culture is the key through which people make sense of the world. With growing globalization of businesses and blurring of boundaries, it is important for Sales professionals to widen their horizon. Gaining greater cross-cultural intelligence is the first step to expanding horizon and developing to a world class sales manager.