As I prepare to embark on another business trip abroad, I have the time to reflect on why this type of activity is still relevant?
With today’s ever so progressive technology, I can be on a Skype call, WebEx, Adobe Connect, Face Time, Lync etc. So why spend my time and the company’s travel budget on this? If you travel a lot for work, I bet you ask yourself the same question. Well, one of the best pieces of advice I got when I started my career was to ‘be where the client is’ and it is fair to say that I took that on board. In fact I had enough air miles for two First Class BA tickets from London to Delhi by the age of 30! But the question is, ‘Why be where the client is’?
My point of view is that in order to sell globally one needs to understand the cultural dynamics of doing business in different regions. I work in a people business (and to that extent we all do) and in order to earn the right to engage in commercial conversations with a customer, it’s not only vital to have that inherent knowledge of how your product or service will benefit them, but also how do you position it to them.
UNDERSTANDING THE BASICS
Engaging with clients from a different country or culture requires acquainting yourself with the basics in advance – something as simple as online research will yield several web sites with information and resources to help you understand cultural norms and cautions. When meeting customers face to face, simple gestures and body language can mean wildly different things in different cultures. For example, sitting casually with a foot resting on the opposite knee is showing one’s foot, which is a highly offensive gesture in the Middle East; and although shaking hands is common practice in the west, it may be deemed inappropriate when working in different regions. Having sight of these differences can prevent awkward and somewhat embarrassing situations occurring just by getting the basics right.
There are also clues in what I like to call the ‘Opening Pleasantries’. Take cues from the other person’s communication style – what they say before they start talking about business is a clue about the individual’s communication preference. Remember Wolf of Wall Street? The Swiss Banker scene? ‘Excusez Moi Jorden, Swiss culture requires 10mins of ‘chit chat’ before business can be discussed!’ A comedy example, yes, but the sentiment is there. Having an understanding of how to position yourself early on in any client meeting or interaction can be quite crucial to the overall success of that meeting and any longer term relationship that you are hoping to develop. Anyone who’s seen that movie knows that particular relationship didn’t go that well!
THE IMPORTANCE OF ETIQUETTE
In addition to thinking about both your verbal on non-verbal communication, it’s also important to think about your attire and etiquette. Sounds simple, right? But that said, be prepared to dress professional when meeting people in certain regions, or specific industries. Not all business etiquette accepts the causal business attire often advocated by the US and the UK. I remember meeting with a Japanese client in London a few years ago and being advised by a manager who had worked in Asia that it’s important to always wait to be directed to your seat for a meeting, as the seating indicates the status of the meeting’s participants and that I should always wait for the leader of the meeting to finish and remain seated until the leader stands at the end of the meeting.
Respecting and understanding these types of cultural manners is something that is key to relationship building and is easy to do. There are a number of good books on the market related to communication and etiquette when working with different cultures so there is really no excuse for getting it wrong.
So in summary, in the information age it’s possible to do business wherever you want, whenever you want without ever leaving your office or home! That said, with businesses becoming more and more competitive with many products and services becoming commodity sooner, compacted by the ability for customers to use technology to identify solutions and find providers at the click of a button; being where the customer is and doing business in a way that is respectful and in line with their cultural preferences may be your differentiator when looking to generate business in the highly competitive environment.