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Selling Across Cultures – How to Win at Cross-Cultural Sales


How do you sell to different cultures? How does culture influence sales?

If you sell internationally then the answers to these questions could be worth a lot in bonuses!

Selling across cultures can be challenging – but only if you don’t take the time to learn a bit about cultural differences.

With some focused effort and a bit of practice, anyone can become a pro in cross-cultural sales.

If you’re looking for some ideas on how to use cultural insights to boost your international sales, then this blog is for you.

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In this blog, we explore just a few examples of the impact of culture on sales. If you’re serious about learning more then check out our eLearning course.

It's the ideal introduction to the impact of culture on the sales cycle and covers topics such as Lead Generation, Qualifying Opportunities and Negotiation strategies.



How does culture influence sales?

Let’s start with the first question - what does culture have to do with anything? Surely we all buy and sell in pretty much the same way, right?


Yes, there are similarities, but if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll soon find some critical differences between cultures and start to realise the huge influence culture has over how we buy and sell.

Let’s give you a real-life example of what could happen when salespeople fail to take off their Cultural Lens and connect with their prospects.

looking through culture lens

A few years ago a sales manager from the USA travelled to Italy to deliver a sales pitch. It was a big deal.

When they arrived the Italian hosts explained that they had postponed the pitch to allow for some sightseeing and a meal.

The American sales manager was put out because they had prepared everything and were keen just to deliver the pitch then head to the hotel and sleep. They went along with the Italian's itinerary but were not really in the mood to socialize.

The next day at the pitch the atmosphere was frosty in the room, very few questions were asked and upon returning to the USA the sales manager received feedback that the prospective client was “looking at other options.”

Essentially, the deal was lost because the sales manager didn’t realise the whole point of the sightseeing trip and meal was to build trust and start negotiations in a more casual setting.

The sales manager saw it all as a waste of time and an inconvenience. This energy rubbed off on the hosts which caused them to question if they had found the right match, or not.

Do you see how culture influenced the lost sale here?

The American sales manager was completely focused on the task, the pitch. They had no understanding that in Italian culture, yes all the technical and details are important, but before they get to that stage, they need to like you and trust you.

This is where the sales manager failed.

This is just one example of the impact of cultural differences on sales – we could explore hundreds more!

salesperson at pitch

Image by Mapbox

How do you sell to different cultures?

So, now we appreciate that culture can impact the sales process in lots of ways. What does this mean for you if you’re in sales? How do you sell to different cultures successfully?

Well, it’s about being aware and adaptable; about understanding your prospects and mirroring their needs with your solutions.

If you truly want to succeed in international sales, you need to start looking at the sales cycle and understand how the things you currently do in your sales role might need changing, depending on who and where you are selling to.

Let’s explore 3 important aspects of any typical sales cycle and how they can be challenged when selling across cultures.

1. Generating Leads

Having a pipeline full of leads is essential in sales. So how might culture impact how you generate these leads?

Well, in some cultures the ‘direct approach’ works well. By this we mean that in some cultures it's perfectly acceptable to go directly to a prospect; for example, you may make a cold call to ask to speak to a buyer or you may find them on Linked In and message them directly. Within these cultures, there doesn’t need to be any context or any link between the individuals involved.

In other cultures, however, this direct approach to sales would not be as successful. Why? Because in these cultures it’s not the norm and therefore not seen as acceptable. It can be perceived as impersonal, aggressive or even cavalier. In such cultures buyers are much more comfortable with an ‘indirect approach’, meaning that if you want to get yourself in front of prospects you need to go via personal recommendations and professional introductions.


2. Qualifying Opportunities

Once you’ve converted a prospect into an opportunity, as a salesperson it’s now critical to ensure you qualify your opportunities, i.e. make sure they have the potential to close and won’t be a waste of your time.

Communication is essential at this stage in the sales cycle.

Without good communication skills, it’s very easy for salespeople to fail by not asking for and assessing information most effectively. Some cultures may be open and honest with their potential vendors, others will not.

For salespeople trying to qualify opportunities, they have to learn to navigate these cultural differences around levels of transparency.

For example, when selling in some cultures if you don’t already have a good personal relationship with the person you are negotiating with, they will tend to see you as someone to compete against rather than collaborate with. The levels of detail they are going to give you will not be as useful compared to someone who has built a relationship with the buyer.

3. Cross-Cultural Negotiation

Agreeing to the terms, prices and legalities of any deal involves negotiating. However, what might be normal negotiating practices in the USA or the UK may look very different in India or China.

A common cultural difference many salespeople experience when selling internationally is the approach to pricing.

Some cultures prefer pricing to be discussed right at the start of any negotiation. Pricing models should be transparent, based on a clear structure and also be fixed, i.e. the price stays the same.

Other cultures see it very differently. Pricing can be left until the end, it’s not necessarily as clearly structured and prices are expected to change, even after an agreement.

Bargaining or haggling may be expected in such cultures and that isn’t just over price. Contracts and terms may also be expected to be subject to change.

Unless the salesperson understands this, it can lead to problems.

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Main image by Kindel Media on Pexels.

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