November 23, 2020

Three steps to effectively sell across cultures

Guest blog by Kyle Hegarty, Author of  The Accidental Business Nomad: A Survival Guide for Working Across a Shrinking Planet

The most common mistake sales people make when selling into different parts of the world is that they sell the way they are used to in their home country. A company out of India who had a solid track record of sales success within India wrestled with this as they began to selling into the US.

I was asked to look into what was going on. What I ended up doing was listening rather than looking because the problem was based on what the sales reps were saying and how they were saying it. Standard phrases in India would sometimes put foreign prospects off.

To be clear, this is not an India problem, it’s a problem everywhere and it happens all the time, costing businesses millions of dollars in lost sales, time and wasted effort.

Part of the definition of the word foreign means “strange and unknown.” People want to have a high level of confidence and certainty when they make a purchase. If a sales rep reduces certainty, the harder it will be to win that deal. Communication styles can go a long way to increase or decrease certainty and trust.

What to do? Adjust authentically. This is easier said than done. People adjust to different situations all the time. We speak to children differently than how we speak with our parents. We probably speak differently to our close friends compared to our boss or when a police officer pulls us over for speeding. We adjust how we talk all the time without thinking about it. When it comes to working with people across cultures, the idea is to combine a bit of art and science into how you adjust with the objective of reducing uncertainty and creating a more comfortable environment to business. The sales reps who can adjust across cultures will rise to the top of any sales organization looking to sell overseas.

I work with individuals and teams to figure out specifically how they can quickly and seamlessly adjust how they communicate. Here is the three-step process I use to get there.

Step 1: Use the data. Be aware you are not the first person to go through this challenge! In fact there are decades of research and data that looks at different working and communication styles across cultures. Start with the data. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and the Globe Project, and the Lewis Model arevgood places to start.

Step 2: Individual behaviour tells you more than cross-cultural data during a 1:1 interaction. Be careful about using this cross-cultural data! These reports are a great place to start thinking about different working and communicating styles, but they do not mean that all people in a certain part of the world act in a certain way. Be careful to fall into the trap of stereotyping and making assumptions. Instead, learn about the individuals you will be selling to. Learn to uncover individual behavioural styles. Frameworks like DISC and Strength Finder can help get started identifying various behavioural styles. A clever company has combined steps 1 and 2, called ICQ Global uses a framework called Global DISC.

Step 3: Develop tools to adjust and practice. Once you have a better read on who you are selling to, now is the third part of the process, finding specific ways to adjust working styles and behaviours. This takes time and practice.

Is the person you are talking with more, or less formal? You may need to use their first name or last name depending on the answer. Learn to follow their lead. Are they soft-spoken or louder than average? Are they time sensitive or more relaxed about timings? Do they want to talk or listen more? Small adjustments can make or break business relationships. Remember, people tend to buy from people they like, so the sales rep’s priority should be to understand the business styles of the person they are selling to and adjust accordingly.

For the Indian client, the culture data suggested their American prospects were more informal, more direct and wanted to get to business right away. We worked on adjusting how the sales reps spoke over the phone, shortened their email dialogs and how they approached sales calls. It took practice, but soon the pipeline began to grow and positive deals began coming through.

Use cross-cultural and behavioural frameworks to understand your overseas audience and then work on ways to adjust conversations. This will help reduce the challenge of foreign communication and working styles and increase the likelihood of succeeding into new markets.

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