ATD Blog

Selling Across Cultures

Monday, February 24, 2014

In the past two decades the world has gotten smaller. Improved technology, new communication devices, and social media have made global distances virtually a non-issue for doing business and making sales. In addition to technological advances, once closed cultures are now open, providing vast opportunities to those who know how to successfully navigate cultures other than their own. 

Case in point 

In 1991, India opened up its markets to the world economy, bringing a billion people into the global market. They were made up of more than 2,000 ethnicities, 1,576 “mother tongues,” eight major religions, and thousands of local dietary and religious practices. Multinationals entering the Indian market would have to successfully navigate this cultural jungle to survive and thrive.

Some businesses learned this the hard way. For example, when Italian automaker Fiat entered the Indian market, its promotions focused mainly on the superior engineering of their cars. Others, like Hyundai and Ford, embraced strong Indian values like family-based decision making. Their promotions adopted uniquely Indian slogans and were aimed at families rather than individuals.

Ford and Hyundai were rewarded with a thriving business in India, whereas Fiat was relegated to the bottom of the pyramid—a sad state of affairs for one of the world’s finest car makers. As marketing and sales functions work together to understand values and cultures their country connection can be strengthened and improved.

The fact that McDonald's, the world’s largest seller of beef products, has a thriving business in India, the land of the sacred cow, is proof that cultural differences are only a barrier when a company fails in its due diligence. McDonald’s has a strict “no-beef, no-pork” policy in India because the cow is widely worshipped by Hindus and consumption of pork is forbidden in Islam. Instead, the fast-food chain has a variety of vegetarian and chicken dishes in local flavors and is considered to be just as Indian by urbanites as curry and naan bread. Because of its cultural astuteness the world over, McDonald's has become the poster child for glocalization—the art of being global in character but local in spirit.

So, how can sales teams prepare for success across cultures?

Begin with self-awareness

Knowledge of one’s own cultural preferences and tendencies is the starting point for understanding and appreciating those of others. There are many ways to do this. A formal understanding of culture is always useful (and quite interesting!) if you have the time.  If you don’t have that kind of time, at least do your homework to understand some of the basics of the culture you will be working in and with.

Do your homework

A key role for sales managers is to help sales reps translate their sales process into the language and practices of their customers. A simple Internet search on “selling to different cultures” will bring up several pages of useful information. A blog post from Tack International, "International Sales Training – Developing a Cross-Cultural Sales Process,” outlines some important questions to think about and prepare for when selling to different cultures: 

  • How much time on average does it take to build trust and relationships with customers?
  • How important are references and which references will carry more weight?
  • How direct can you be with your questioning and probing?
  • How strongly can you push the advantages and benefits of your product or service?
  • How strongly can you push for a commitment from the customer?

Be clear about your core values

It is easy to fall prey to cultural relativism when doing business globally. Knowledge of what constitutes one’s core beliefs and the role they play in the success of their business will help avoid that pitfall. Sticking to core beliefs in the face of local opposition might look like you are short-changing yourself or your organization. But in the long run, staying true to core beliefs always makes good business sense.

Recognize the difference between culture and personality

There is a fine line between cultural sensitivity and cultural stereotyping. Culture describes a group of individuals, and personality describes the individual. Behavioral manifestations of cultural tendencies take place through filters of personality, economic background, education, and experience. Just because a country scores low on power distance in its culture, does not mean everyone you meet in that culture will take kindly to backslapping bonhomie.

At best, knowledge of cultural mores can help one avoid the more serious faux pas, especially in a group setting. In India, for example, including a vegetarian menu at any social function involving food is an absolute must. However, assuming that everyone who is Hindu avoids meat is equally false.

Once you are aware about cultural themes that are particularly sensitive in nature, and you or your sales person is in doubt, the best thing to do is ask. Make it clear that you come from a different cultural setting, that you are aware of the cultural importance of a particular action, and ask how the person in question would prefer that action be performed.

Summing up

Culture is a lens through which people make sense of the world. Wearing another’s lens or walking the proverbial mile in another’s shoes will cause some discomfort at first.  As you do this, be confident in your core values and express your desire to learn about the culture and its traditions.  Keep in mind, those who master the process stand to reap huge gains.




This post is based on content explored in the new ASTD Press release, The Art of Modern Sales Management, which covers everything you need to know to be a top sales manager!   

Sales management has changed dramatically in the past decade. With increasing globalization and many companies adding more virtual workers, the task of managing these diverse sales teams has become increasingly complicated. In a connected and evolving world it is hard to offer a definitive guide, but this book strives to sketch out a blueprint for managing performance in a changing sales landscape. 

Each chapter is written by a sales professional and thought leader, many with experience as both a salesperson and as a sales manager. Learn from their experience and utilize the action plans at the end of each chapter to grow into a better leader for your team, whether they are down the hall or across the world.



About the Author

Anup Soans is the editor of MedicinMan, India’s first magazine for field force excellence in pharmaceutical sales. He is the author of three books for pharma field force professionals and a facilitator of learning and development programs at India’s top pharma companies. He conducts skill development and field force engagement programs that bring an alignment between employee aspirations and organizational objectives.

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