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Cultural issues in global sales or when not to blow your nose!

Well it's a big world out there and many of us selling high-value B2B products are trying to grow our businesses all over the globe. We’ve made a checklist of everything needed for world domination. It reads something like:

Website - Check


Invest in other marketing and lead generation activities - Check


Decide where to sell direct and where to try with distributors - Check


Got the Planet covered - Check….. Well maybe not!


Don’t confuse marketing and sales. Both are important but while one global marketing approach may work for many B2B technology companies, the same is not true for sales. High-value B2B selling is an intimate affair. Every interaction needs to be fostered, mentored and managed with care and care is a personal thing. Care is about building relationships and relationships don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist between people who live and work in cultures with social and corporate values that significantly affect their interactions and decision making processes.


Consider these scenarios. On a business trip to Japan the two following two incidents might take place:


1. You are still recovering from a cold (air travel always makes these things worse!) and feel a little nasally congested. While chatting during a business lunch you take out your handkerchief and blow your nose, commenting to your local hosts “Sorry, feeling a bit blocked up today.”

2. Over a beer that evening one of the people you have met that day asks you fairly personal questions about your employment situation including “How much do you earn?”


Question: Which of the above interactions is socially inappropriate?


Answer: Number 1.


In Japan, blowing your nose in public is considered rude. Unless overcome by an uncontrollable bout of sneezing, you should always take yourself and your congested nasal passages to the restroom to perform the required blowing. Conversely, people in Japan may often ask questions that seem overly personal to Americans or Europeans. Tip, you don’t have to answer. It is fine to say you don’t like to talk about your salary but you should not take offence at being asked. No-one is trying to put you off your game. They are just making conversation and are genuinely interested in what life is like in your part of the world.


Both of the above situations may seem small to you but consider this. Sales often made between companies are always closed by people and people simply prefer to do deals with people they like. So social interactions matter and will affect your sales results.


Other cultural issues are more obviously corporate in nature. For example, research shows that Germanic cultures place a considerably higher emphasis on status over likeability when making purchasing decisions. This is the exact opposite of what happens in English speaking and Latin cultures where being liked is more important than apparent status. It’s true! If you want to find out about the science behind it, then read Professor Robert B. Cialdini’s fantastic book “Influence: Science and Practice'. which is available (like every other book on the planet) from Amazon, click here to have a look at it.


The issue of how people of varying rank will interact with you when their bosses or subordinates are around is also particularly sensitive in some cultures. In Hungary for example, juniors will seldom speak up in meetings where their bosses are present. In China, it can be hard to get senior executives to ask searching questions in front of their subordinates. Understanding the hierarchy within any group you meet and try to sell to is vital but, as the above examples show, it is not just a simple matter of working out who the decision makers and influencers are but also one of assessing whether the group dynamic is preventing some participants from interacting with you as you might expect among a similar group in Europe or North America.



Different cultures have different approaches to decision making, too. In some countries , decisions are typically arrived at through a form of groupthink or internal consultation. In other words, the manager in charge will rarely make a decision without consulting with his or her team. This approach to decision making is also becoming more popular in some Western companies. In such situations, following a presentation with something like the classic closing line - “you’ve heard the pitch, now let me ask you to commit to the order now” - just won’t work. Even though the boss is in the room, he won’t make a decision until he has consulted privately with his team. So the “close question” followed by a stoic silence approach won’t get you anywhere. You can stay silent as long as you like, but this manager won’t commit without involving his team. The solution here is to insert a consultation time between the presentation and the close question. Maybe, arrange the meeting timing so that you have a break where they can talk among themselves. Find an excuse to give them some space and after you can return and then try to close.


Remember that business etiquette can change quickly. Covid has changed common practices in many countries. In most of Europe, for example, whilst business travel has resumed, the handshake is still on hold and doesn’t look to be coming back any time soon.


There are a few simple tips that will help you with potential cultural issues in business around the world.


1. Remember that people are much the same everywhere and the beginning of building a relationship is establishing trust. Everywhere you go, trust will stem from the respect and integrity you show in your dealing with others. This is simply universal.


2. Try to research the culture as you are visiting. A Google search on “Doing business in XXXX” will show you multiple pages of tips on business etiquette in your destination. Some good examples can be found at Business News Daily but you will need to do a lot of research to get the full lowdown on a specific country's business customs.


3. You don’t have to be perfect! Effort counts for a lot in all countries. So if you make (and are seen to make) an effort to follow one or two local conventions then your hosts will likely be thrilled with you. Think of it as the business extension of learning to say please and thank you in another person’s language. It may just be a gesture but it is always well received.

Oh, and you can feel free to blow your nose now.


Happy travels!


Rory Geoghegan

August 25th, 2021


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Photo credits: Pixabay.com

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