In a recent survey carried out by UKTI, nearly half of all businesses identified talking with potential international customers as one of the biggest challenges they face in international trade. Unsurprising perhaps: good cross-cultural communication is crucial if you’re going to develop great working relationships with your customers. That means taking the time to understand the beliefs, attitudes, needs, expectations and communication styles that define business in your overseas market.
This can be a tricky business. Ignore cultural etiquette and you’ll get your business into hot water. Focus on superficial differences based on stereotypes rather than informed cultural understanding and you’ll risk alienating the very people you’re trying to develop good business relationships with. Research, predictably, is key. Here are the areas we’d suggest focusing on for anyone starting out in international trade:
It’s important to converse in the main language spoken by people in the group you’re doing business with – not least because this helps keep everybody in the loop without excluding people on the basis of language. Avoiding turns of phrase peculiar to Britain is also important in your communications – these can be confusing (or even offensive!). You can get great support and advice on dealing with cultural communication and language issues from UKTI. We’d also recommend checking out BusinessLink’s guide to doing business in another language, which provides excellent guidance on using translation services and language training.
Understanding the psychology of cross-cultural communication
From how you strike up a conversation, to knowing when it’s your turn to talk and how you should interpret interruptions, getting your head round the etiquette of interaction in a particular culture will make a massive difference in developing a good rapport. A basic overview can be found here, but you’ll want to do as much research as possible before starting out.
One of the best ways to get to grips with another culture is by experiencing it. Immersion is key, even if practical time constraints make it difficult. But make time for sampling the local culture now and it’ll pay dividends in the long run.
Researching beliefs and practices of your local target market is vital. As David Solomons points out over on internationaltrade.co.uk, simply assuming your message is ‘universal’ is a huge mistake. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that everything about your brand, from product to packaging, is likely to have been influenced by the culture it’s been developed in. This culture might not be compatible with the local values and attitudes of the country you’re working with, leading to the kind of problems encountered by even some of the UK’s biggest retail businesses. That’s why tailoring your product, packaging, messaging and just about everything else to the market you’re working in has to be a top priority.
Do you have experience of working effectively across cultures? Let us know your tips and experiences by leaving a comment below!