Communicating with International Clients: A Guide to Success

A little over five years ago, I moved to Los Angeles from my hometown of 200,000 inhabitants in Sweden. Although Swedish culture and American culture are not polar opposites, I still suffered from a slight culture shock. While I tried my best to speak grammatically correct English, I had to get used to the American way of living and to strangers talking to me in the streets. Today my family calls me “Americanized,” and perhaps there is some truth to that.

Thanks to the Internet, I can not only speak with my Swedish family and friends on a daily basis, but also easily communicate with our international clients here at Paladin Software. The barriers to enter a foreign market for a business are significantly lower today than they were 20 years ago, and we are really excited to be working with companies from all over the world. However, while doing business across national borders presents a lot of opportunities, it also comes with its challenges. All of a sudden clients’ cultures and time zones vary greatly, and their interests and values might be completely different from yours. To set you up for a successful strategy, I’ve listed a few things to keep in mind for building strong relationships with international players in your industry.

Understand Key Cultural Differences

There are thousands of different cultures present in the world today, so it’s basically impossible to have a complete understanding of them all. However, the best way to start is to make sure you understand your own. Recognize what’s typical for your culture and what might differ in others. The next step is to read up on a culture before starting a conversation with a prospect of that particular culture.

Remember, something that’s popular in one culture might be less accepted in another. One example is small talk. While it’s not rare to have conversations with strangers such as grocery store cashiers here in the United States, people in my home country of Sweden often skip the small talk and only speak to others when ready to converse in-depth. Small talk in the beginning of a meeting can be favorable in some cultures, but seen as a waste of time in another.

If you work on a diverse team and have a coworker whose culture is more closely related to a prospect’s than your own, include your coworker in the conversation. You may make the person you want to do business with feel more at home. The more you can close the gap, the better.

Use clear language when writing and speaking

Most conversations in the global market are conducted in English. This is, of course, unless you and the prospect share another tongue that would make more sense for the discussion. As we all know, not everyone has English as their first language and this can cause language barriers when trying to do business with one another. To overcome these obstacles, and to make sure your point comes across successfully, try to follow these guidelines:

  • Always be clear and proofread everything
  • Ask questions to make sure you and the prospect are on the same page at all times
  • Stay away from yes or no questions, and instead ask questions that will keep the conversation going

There are both pros and cons to the fact that a lot of your business communication will happen in writing. It’s good because it gives everyone time to double check the messages, to make sure that their own make sense and that they understand the incoming ones. Drawbacks include the lack of other clues, such as tone of voice and/or body language, that could help you read the situation or get your point across. Therefore, schedule phone calls or video conferences on a regular basis, in addition to the email conversations. This helps us on the Accounts team at Paladin Software to build stronger relationships with our clients and to be of better support when needed.

In addition, it’s important for native English speakers to remember that their prospects’ English level might be much more basic than theirs. I can speak from personal experience – it wasn’t easy to keep up with my American friends when I just moved here. Therefore, pay extra attention to your word choices. Don’t use lingo that is too complex and will confuse the other party. It’s also likely that people from other countries do not understand your slang, acronyms, and abbreviations, so stay away from using these.

Business Mentality and Expectations May Differ

In the United States, it’s common for professionals to work around the clock. In other countries, however, the custom might be to work from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and then leave work behind when you leave the office. This can of course differ among industries, but make sure you understand what the norm is in the industry and country in question. Similarly, long-term relationships are very important in some countries, and closing deals fast might not be the way to go. A delay in reaching a decision does not necessarily mean that the people you’re talking with are inefficient or not interested, it could just be the result of a different decision-making process.

Recognize what it takes to build trust in the other culture, and understand the pace of their business world. If you have trips planned, try to schedule in-person meetings with potential clients in the area. It’s always preferable to meet face-to-face and establish a more personal relationship. Also, remember that even if communicating internationally might be challenging in the beginning, the more time you’ll spend talking with people from other cultures, the more you’ll learn and the easier it’ll get.

Lycka till! (Good luck!)


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