Selling Internationally: 3 Questions to Ask When Navigating Cultural Nuances


How business is done in countries around the world varies greatly, even though today we are more connected to each other in new and innovative ways.

Gaining an understanding of the culture you’re selling into matters, not only for the benefit of your bottom line and your clients but for your internal teams, too.

To understand and measure your team’s effectiveness, you need to understand their market and how their specific culture influences it. This may sound trite, but many leaders fail to understand how their direct reports operate, which can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointments.

Why is navigating cultural nuances important?

Diving into understanding cultural norms might expose less obvious needs that you can fill easily and at no cost to your company. But understanding clients’ needs in a new market must go beyond their business strategy analysis and involve intense professional reflection.

Understanding a country’s culture is a sign of respect. As part of an effective management strategy, perfecting intercultural communication and understanding can also help salespeople prepare for negotiations, and have realistic expectations for timelines and decision-makers to involve.

3 questions to ask before working with international clients

Before starting to operate in a new country, spend some time planning your intercultural strategy. Experts in selling internationally ask themselves the following three questions before they start speaking to customers in other cultures.

1. How can I adapt to my customers’ culture?

When selling internationally, be aware of stereotypes and generalizations, but avoid using these as a reason to be inflexible. Knowing what’s commonplace is useful, but it’s crucial to remember: Every person (and company) is different.

Lauren Bailey, sales expert and Founder of Factor 8, says that the three most important characteristics of a salesperson are: curiosity, confidence, and coachability. “I’ve been in the training business for 20 years, and there hasn’t been one instance where a person didn’t have more to learn about sales, the company, the product, the industry, or all that has changed in the last five years,” says Bailey. Encourage your sales team to be flexible and curious about potential new learnings from other countries and cultures.

In brief, you may not need to adapt or change your business – your customers might not want you to. On the other hand, your sales team might need to pivot. But you will only find this out through curious exploration, and what clients around the world want is for their partners and vendors to be open to feedback and considerate of their specific needs.

2. How does my customer’s market impact my strategy?

You might assume your customers’ market is their immediate country, but they may in fact only sell to other markets or dominate an entire continent. Alternatively, there could be plenty of growing demand in one city for a service, such that companies have no need or interest in expanding outside their current market.

It’s easy to assume that companies will stick to markets where they share a language, but sometimes company leaders prefer to connect with comparable cultures, even if this means negotiating and operating in other languages.

Consider the cultural similarities between some Caribbean countries where English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Haitian (just to name some of 13 languages) are spoken, or the proximity of Austria to Italy and Hungary.

It may be easier to work with a neighboring country because professional expectations might be similar, making it easier to overcome a language barrier together. Avoid jumping to conclusions and, instead, investigate or ask your prospects directly about who they work with and for, and how they expect this to change in the short term.

Markets vary drastically depending on geography and culture, so when considering international expansion, business leaders should not make the mistake of applying local analysis and data to other territories or assume the reasons for success at home will apply abroad. This remains the case even when there are obvious and apparent factors in common, such as for the U.S. and UK. Scratch the surface and there are many important differences that can affect the ability of a business to grow in new markets.

Market size may also impact your prospect’s professional experience with other markets. Knowing your counterparts’ level of international experience can guide you as to how open they will be to your own cultural quirks – we all have them!

3. How can I cater to prospects without patronizing them?

Cultural adaptation doesn’t always mean learning new greetings or adopting new communication styles. Intercultural awareness is important, but speed of reaction can be just as crucial. Before you start trying to change your behavior with clients, change your timezone.

Being available to clients when they need you, not only during your local working hours, can be a huge differentiator. An e-commerce company might choose a local chatbot service vendor over your company, not because they offered better pricing or products, but because they knew the local partner could serve them in real-time.

Show goodwill by programming a meeting at a time that is outside your usual working hours but is convenient to your clients. When they bring it up, you can explain how you shifted your workday earlier or later to suit your clients who are mostly in their locality. This shows respect for their time and builds trust in you as a partner.

Alternatively, companies can simply hire salespeople and customer service teams in relevant time zones for their new market. If you’re looking for a way to onboard your first hires in a new market, contact an Employer of Record for advice on compliant, international team growth.

Sales strategies to navigate cultural nuances

Now that you’ve opened your mind and thrown stereotypes out the window, let’s dive into some actionable sales strategies you can apply in initial conversations to gauge cultural nuances that might impact later negotiations.

Navigate high-context and low-context cultures

You can find which type of culture your prospect belongs to with a Google search, and if you’re not aware of high- and low-context communication, this will be eye-opening! For example, after a successful presentation at work, one colleague said to our [much taller] German colleague, “Oh, the projector’s still on.”

To this, he nodded and wished us a nice afternoon. Later, we laughed together as he explained that we could have simply asked him to turn off the projector because he could reach the ceiling more easily. At the time, our indirect, high-context communication seemed to so clearly express a request that we were shocked at his rudeness by not helping.

Many entertaining stories like this can come from cultural misunderstandings. But would you rather have a great dinner party anecdote or a signed deal? Beware that your prospects may be trying to politely decline an offer by saying, “We’ll look into it” if they’re from a high-context culture, while your low-context sales team habitually waits on a direct “no” before giving up.

On the other hand, high-context salespeople might be disheartened by being told “I’ll get back to you,” understanding this to mean “No thank you,” and not follow up on a deal that was genuinely being reviewed internally at a prospect’s company.

In the U.A.E., it’s important to be sensitive to the Emiratis’ need to clearly understand their partner’s motivations. Business dealings that are hurried and promise short-term gains or a quick exit strategy usually represent the kind of partnerships the local Emirati business people want to avoid.

In general, the Emirati community favors investing in long-term relationships, so successful business partners invest time in networking before getting down to business. After this valuable networking stage, Emirati businesses are not slow in decision-making. Once trust is built, local partners make decisions quickly and can open doors to many other opportunities in the region.

Again, knowing whether a country’s culture typically fits into one or the other bucket is not a catchall. It does not mean that every person in that culture will identify as either a polite or a direct communicator.

Nevertheless, educating yourself and your sales team on this global distinction can guide you as to the behaviors you should adopt yourself and open your eyes up to different forms of communicating.

Put it into action:

  • Check whether your prospects’ home country is high- or low-context.
  • Let your prospect know what your communication style is and emphasize that you try to be direct as much as possible.
  • Fact check with a confidante after meetings.
  • Send recaps in writing after reaching agreements on terms or deals, providing an opportunity to clear up any miscommunication.


Cut the corporate jargon

Some countries more than others use expressions that are locally understood. Phrases like “we need to get our ducks in a row” and “let’s touch base” may be commonplace in your work meetings, but they are not descriptive by nature. These add an extra level of difficulty for non-native English speakers and are not universally used in all English-speaking regions. Beware of the assumption that speaking the same language will simplify negotiations.

All languages have these idioms, but some cultures keep them out of the work environment. It is best to stick to formal actionable sentences to avoid confusion and to avoid sounding overly informal.

A related recommendation is to avoid using words that are borrowed from other languages. We assume our language employs these words correctly and, therefore, our use of it in conversation will help our listener understand – a well-meaning action! Sadly, languages do not always adopt words correctly, so you may cause more confusion than anything else.

Consider the word ”double entendre” when employed by English speakers. This is used to describe something that has a double meaning of which one is obvious, and the other is a meaning that would be too socially awkward, flirty, or offensive to state directly. French speakers do not use this expression in the same way but would rather say “double sens”. In a brave attempt to be more inclusive, you may find yourself distracting from your message.

It is important to be mindful of using idioms or expressions, even when working with people who come from countries that speak your same language. In the U.S., if an individual is upset or angry, someone might say he or she is “pissed”. In the UK, this phrase has nothing to do with temperament but indicates that someone is completely inebriated.

Another example that’s specific to Asia, is how different countries and languages use the same Chinese characters in their alphabet but can symbolize vastly different meanings. The combination of the two Chinese characters for hand and paper refers to a written letter in Japan. In China, however, these two characters combined refer to toilet paper, which can ultimately cause great confusion when enquiring if someone received your “letter.”

Put it into action:

  • Learn about your own idiosyncrasies. Trusted colleagues from other cultures can help inform you.
  • Use actionable, non-idiomatic language.
  • Assume the best, give people the benefit of the doubt when they say something you consider unusual.

Localize as you globalize

Localization will play a key role as businesses become more global. Make sure your product, your sales process, and your customer experience support are set up to accommodate outside your home market. The most popular way to do this is by hiring locally.

Rather than sending someone from HQ out to your local market to hire and train an entirely new team, consider partnering with one person who is native to said market, training them on your corporate culture, and then enabling them to hire their own local team.

Culture matters and can be the key to success or failure in new markets. Therefore, it’s important to understand that opportunities in another country can be very different compared to those on home ground. Someone who seems like a great candidate based on your cultural values and understanding of the new market might be completely unfitted to the target audience in that country.

A certain level of trust in your first hires does need to be established too, since it may be hard to understand what they’re looking for in team members and why, unless you’re well versed in their country’s business and cultural norms.

To this point, it’s worth adding that cultures can also vary greatly within a country. Consider the East Coast/West Coast distinction in behavior in the U.S., or how someone in a capital like Buenos Aires might behave very differently to someone operating in rural Argentina.

Assumptions are always dangerous, so as salespeople, we should remember that we cannot always profess to understand a prospect’s work habits, simply because we have worked with or gained clients from the same country previously.

Products and services should also be evaluated to ensure they don’t clash with cultural norms. As companies go global, the localization of a product may offer substantial revenue possibilities. Alternatively, localization may require unrealistic investment to compete with popular incumbent businesses.

Understanding the market opportunity and especially the cultural nuances can help ensure success and determine whether a new geography is right for your company ahead of time.

Put it into action:

  • Ask a local about customs you should expect to adopt and/or tolerate when hiring in their market.
  • Understand that your international context may temper highly localized behavior.
  • Match your corporate culture before country culture when recruiting.

Identifying cultural differences in new markets and using them in the sales process

If you are considering global expansion and plan to hire a team in a new market, whether your goal is to target their local audience, tap into global talent, or simply take advantage of free online resources at your disposal to gather information.

An Employer of Record can also help you hire quickly and easily, providing the expertise of in-country HR professionals, so you can offer localized, culturally sensitive support to your global teams. Set the example for your sales teams by recognizing the importance of cultural nuances when working internationally.

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