Over the past 15 years a continuous theme, which has never ceased to amaze us, has been the way in which businesses significantly underestimate the impact of cultural differences.
It typically takes something to go wrong before stakeholders take notice.
With years of experience helping businesses confront and manage the challenges of culture, we talk with a lot of experience!
So, what can happen if you think cultural differences don't matter?
When You Ignore Culture
Take, for example, a US tech firm we worked with recently who, on the verge of signing a large export deal with a Chinese company, invited the Chinese boss to attend a factory tour and business dinner.
At dinner, when the Chinese boss asked where he should sit, he was told to, “sit where you like”.
Although nothing was said at the time, this reply led to the Chinese boss leaving the US the next day which nearly ruined the business relationship and led to an 8-month delay in the signing of the contract.
In Chinese culture, honouring your guest and respecting status, is critical – the visiting boss should have been given a seat of honour next to the most senior American.
By assuming the boss would be more comfortable choosing where he wanted to sit, as they would do in America, the American party caused offence and upset. Big mistake.
Another example is the gaming company we once worked with who were desperate to tap into the growing market in the Gulf region.
They had been flying to the UAE, having meetings but never making any progress. ‘Could it be cultural’, they thought? Yes, it was.
Upon working with them it soon became clear their approach to business in the UAE was completely wrong.
They were literally flying in, having meetings and flying out. “You don’t take any of them out to eat? For coffee even? Nothing?” our trainer asked. “No” was the reply.
In Arab culture, people generally don’t do business with people they don’t like and trust. Business meetings are not where the real business gets done; it’s done in restaurants, cafes and events as part of the relationship-building process.
The sales team returned to the UAE with a new focus on relationship building. This paid off within 4 months and they finally had their distributor.
Culture is everywhere. It impacts everything we do at home or at work. A 'global mindset' is key to working successfully across cultures.
Why Culture Matters
You see culture and cultural awareness is about the subtle stuff, the bits we don’t really think about, understand or see.
That’s why it’ 's so important to build it into your export plans. It impacts your product, your service, your sales style, customer service, marketing, social media and so much more.
If you want to succeed at export you need to adapt to the markets you’re trying to sell into. It’s not merely a case of speaking their language but also, ‘speaking their culture’. In this way, you create connections, trust, build a brand, foster loyalty and secure long-term business.
With the future ever more reliant on trading with the big wide world, it’s vital that exporters shed the old, defunct belief that “everyone does business like we do”, because the truth is that they don’t.
Since exporters may find it a challenge to get their hands on quick and easy information concerning business in or with foreign countries, we’ve launched The Business Culture Complexity Index™.
This index ranks the top 50 economies of the world according to how difficult or easy a business culture may be.
Denmark sits at the top spot (with the easiest culture for Western nationals to navigate) with Nigeria at the bottom.
The Business Culture Complexity Index™ Heat Map
The Index offers exporters, or potential exporters, the opportunity to assess how tricky a new market could be for them as well as offering tips on doing business there.
Whether it’s learning about religious taboos, how to meet and greet or selling to another culture, taking time out to learn and to capitalise on your cultural knowledge can only help boost your chances of success.
Cross-Cultural Resources for Exporters
For exporters looking for resources on countries and cultures, then we have a range of free and paid-for resources available on our website including:
- Online Courses - country-specific online training videos about business cultures from around the world.
- Country Profiles - quick-fire guides to 70+ countries and their cultures
- Country Reports - in-depth reports on a selection of countries and their working cultures
- Management Guides - guides to different management styles from around the world
- The Business Culture Complexity Index™ - as above, our index of the top 50 world economies