Written by Neil Payne, Director at Commisceo Global, specialists in online training courses about culture.
This article was originally published in the May 2019 edition of World Trade Matters – the quarterly journal from the Institute of Export & International Trade.
Looking forward as a nation our future economic success clearly lies in trading with the rest of the world. However, in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, we can ill afford for our service and manufacturing industries to slip further behind. We need to be strategic, pro-active and focused to ensure our economy is fit for purpose.
Essential to this, I believe, is the ability communicate across cultures and to have a truly global mindset. Having lived, travelled and done business across the globe, I’ve seen business people from other countries sign lucrative deals where no Brit has been for years; Turks in West Africa, Iranians in Malaysia and Indians in South Korea. Although Britain is doing business globally, we are nowhere near fulfilling our potential.
Whether its sending people abroad to find business or servicing business that comes into the UK from abroad, we need a shift in thinking. We need to start to treating export markets differently if we are to be a success and key to that is learning about their cultures.
Through sharing a real and personal experience, I would like to highlight the difference I have seen in people who are able to think and communicate globally.
Why you cannot afford to be monocultural or monolingual in global trade
I ran a company for 12 years in a part of the UK which is both monocultural and monolingual. Exposure to diversity in this area was rare.
A good distance from any university and with a local workforce offering relatively low-level, manual skills, our recruitment pool was limited. However, wanting to keep things local we used training, coaching and mentoring to get people where we needed them to be.
Despite great progress, one area in which we struggled was dealing effectively with enquiries from businesses and clients located outside of the UK. This work equated to approximately 40%-45% of our business.
Although this international aspect of our business was crucial, a poorly worded email in English, a heavy accent on the phone or a seemingly rude line of questioning could well lead to our staff misunderstanding, misrepresenting and, many times, either losing us business, or at best, losing face. Our ability to service an international clientele simply wasn’t good enough.
Adopt a global mindset – think about the needs of your overseas clients
We tried all sorts of interventions, including sending people to spend time in London in the hope that the cosmopolitan, multicultural air might help! Nothing worked. There was always something missing.
That is until we decided to bring in foreign exchange students.
Over the years we hosted people from France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Taiwan, China, Japan and many more. Within 6 months, our team were changing; within a few years, some were transformed.
Our visitors brought with them a real sense of pride in what they did at work and how they did it; this rubbed off on the whole company. Rather than feeling controlled by circumstances, our team now took active control through managing conversations, negotiations and relationships.
Once upon a time if the team received a call from Russia, India or even South Africa, our person on the phone would be flapping. Not only were they unable to understand English spoken with a twang but the way they dealt with the calls could border on embarrassing. Within months of spending time with the students this all started to change. They could understand accents, pick out words to provide clues to meaning and ask questions in the correct way.
As our exchange students began to settle in and develop relationships with our staff, both in and out of business, there was a subtle change over the coming years in terms of their approach to difference and change. A most striking example was the move from a very British lunchtime routine of everyone disappearing to eat a sandwich, some crisps and get away from colleagues for 60 minutes, to one where they would sit down at a table and have lunch together. If it were not for the exchange students religiously doing this every day and demonstrating that there is another way of going about lunch, this would not have happened. This alone was a cultural revolution – in our office anyway!
Being able to understand, identify with, relate to and communicate clearly with people helps you to understand better how to see to their needs and as a business provide better customer service. An organic side-effect of the exchange programme was in our team being able to think differently, understand what makes people from other countries tick, how to manage tricky conversations and ultimately how to provide customer service in a way that resonated with the client.
In time, our team members became incredibly adept at managing our international clientele effectively. In fact, a number of them eventually moved into positions with high profile global companies where an international skill and mind set is so sought after.
Whatever you do, have a global mindset
As we move into the future, its time to be honest and recognise where we are good and where we need to improve. With a little effort, our already good reputation combined with our diplomatic and open way of doing business can be enhanced to really ensure we become a global Britain.
Whatever way you do it, whether through hiring foreign exchange students or by visiting and immersing yourself in the countries you’re selling to, it’s vital that you make the effort to understand the culture you are selling to. We at Commisceo Global can help you to learn about the markets you’re selling to through our comprehensive suit of training courses. If you’d like to learn more about how you can have a global mindset, do get in touch!